- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the city of Charlottesville can remove two Confederate statues, including one of Robert E. Lee that became the flashpoint for a violent White supremacist rally in August 2017.

Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn said Charlottesville could take down the statues of Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson because a 1997 state law protecting war memorials does not apply retroactively to statues erected before the law was enacted.

The ruling culminates years of legal battles involving attempts to preserve the Civil War memorials.

“In the present case, the statues were erected long before there was a statute, which both authorized a city’s erection of a war memorial or monument and regulated the disturbance of or interference with that war memorial or monument,” Justice Goodwyn wrote.

He said the 1997 law “did not provide the authority for the city to erect the statues, and it does not prohibit the city from disturbing or interfering with them.” The ruling overturned a lower court’s decision that backed residents who wanted to block the city from removing the statues.

The Charlottesville City Council voted to remove both.

Chip Boyles, the city manager of Charlottesville, said Thursday’s ruling was important not only for the community, but also for the entire commonwealth. He indicated that the city would act soon to remove the monuments.

“I and my administration will work diligently to plan the next steps, in coordination with City Council,” Mr. Boyles said in a statement. “We also look forward to engaging our community in the redesign of these park spaces in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville.”

The City Council adopted resolutions in 2017 that gave the city manager authority over removing the statues.

S. Braxton Puryear, a lawyer for the residents, and Frederick W. Payne, a lawyer and lead plaintiff in the case, would not comment on the ruling, according to The Associated Press.

The Lee statue was the site of a White supremacist march in August 2017, known as the “Unite the Right” rally. Neo-Nazi groups clashed with a group of protesters supporting the removal of the Civil War memorial.

One man killed a protester by running over her with his car. Two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed as they monitored events.

A group of residents sued in 2017 to stop the city from removing the statues of Lee, erected in 1924, and of Jackson, built in 1921, after outrage grew against Civil War memorials and symbols of slavery. One of the residents bringing the lawsuit said he was related to the sculptor.

The residents pointed to the 1997 law preserving a city’s ability to erect memorials and to protect them from removal.

A lower court ruled for the residents in part. It said Lee Park and Jackson Park could be renamed, but moving the statues would be unlawful under the 1997 measure.

The law protecting statues was repealed last year after Democrats took control of the Virginia General Assembly. Since the repeal, local governments across the state have removed many historic statues.

Another legal battle is playing out over a statute of Lee in Richmond, where city officials have removed several Civil War memorials along Monument Avenue. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit argue that the statue sits on land subject to requirements of an 1890 deed that prohibits the statue’s removal.

Racial justice advocates have made removing Civil War memorials a focus of their movement.

A total of 168 Confederate symbols were taken down in 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Only one had been removed before the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis in May.

Partially because of the outrage over Floyd’s death, activists removed 167 statues and memorials during the last seven months of 2020.

By contrast, 58 Confederate monuments were taken down from 2015 to 2019.

In Alexandria, Virginia, officials in June removed a Confederate statue named “Appomattox” that had stood in the middle of busy Washington Street since 1889. It depicted a lone Confederate soldier, head bowed and arms folded, his back turned toward Washington.

President Trump voiced opposition frequently last year to what he viewed as a movement to “whitewash” history and heritage. He even proposed a “National Garden of American Heroes” to include statues of 244 historical figures including Ulysses S. Grant and Shirley Temple.

Virginia has removed the most Confederate symbols, with 71, followed by North Carolina at 24, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Alabama and Texas both have 12.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s report said more than 2,100 Confederate symbols are still standing in the U.S., and 704 of those symbols are monuments.

“This encompasses government buildings, Confederate monuments and statues, plaques, markers, schools, parks, counties, cities, military property and streets and highways named after anyone associated with the Confederacy,” the report said.

Other efforts nationwide to remove Confederate symbols and references in the public sphere include Virginia’s replacement of Lee-Jackson Day with Election Day as a state holiday last April.

⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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