Next steps: What happens if localities remove Confederate monuments?

Credit: WRIC
Credit: WRIC(WHSV)
Published: Mar. 10, 2020 at 11:27 AM EDT
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UPDATE (March 10):

A bill that would give Virginia localities control of Confederate monuments is on its way to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk. However, there are still a few hoops to jump through before any of the statues come down.

Governor Northam has been vocal about his support for the bill. If and when he signs it, there are a number of steps that must be taken in order to remove a statue.

First, a locality has to announce its intention to move a statue and must hold a public hearing, voting to remove or alter the monument.

Next, a locality has to have the vote of the governing body. These monuments could potentially be given to a museum, historical society, government, or a military battlefield. With the final amended version of the bill that passed the General Assembly, the statues cannot be destroyed.

In Charlottesville, City Council ultimately gets the final say on where the statue goes.

“It’ll be interested in seeing what kinds of organizations choose to step forward and offer to be a home for the monuments,” says (D) 57th District Delegate Sally Hudson. “I think that what all of us believe is that the monuments have spurred critical conversations about our history, and so we all benefit from being able to participate in that process. I feel good about where we’re at.”

If all the steps go as planned, the law will take effect on July 1.


UPDATE (March 8):

Some of Virginia's scores of Confederate monuments could soon be removed under legislation state lawmakers approved Sunday.

The Democratic-led House and Senate passed measures that would undo an existing state law that protects the monuments and instead let local governments decide their fate. The bill's passage marks the latest turn in Virginia's long-running debate over how its history should be told in public spaces.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he supports giving localities — several of which have already declared their intent to remove statues — control over the issue.

After white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017, in part to protest the city’s attempt to move a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, many places across the country quickly started taking Confederate monuments down. But Virginia localities that wanted to remove monuments were hamstrung by the existing law.

In the two legislative sessions that followed the rally, Republican lawmakers defeated bills like the one that passed Sunday. But Democrats recently took full control of the state house for the first time in a generation.

One of the bill's sponsors, Del. Delores McQuinn of Richmond, said she feels great about letting local leaders decide what's right for their community. But she said she thought many places would opt to keep the monuments.

“I think more of them are going to be interested in contextualizing, you know, making sure that there is a sense of truth told and shared with the public,” she said.

Virginia, a state that prides itself on its pivotal role in America's early history, is home to more than 220 public memorials to the Confederacy, according to state officials. Among those are some of the nation's most prominent — a collective of five monuments along Richmond's Monument Avenue, a National Historic Landmark.

Critics say the monuments are offensive to black Virginians because they romanticize the Confederacy and ignore its defense of slavery.

“My family has lived with the trauma of slavery for generations. ... I hope that you understand that this is a situation that’s so deeper than a simple vote on simple war memorials,” Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who presides over the Senate, said earlier in the week.

Others say removing the monuments amounts to erasing history.

Republican Amanda Chase said during the same Senate debate that slavery was evil.

“But it doesn’t mean that we take all of these monuments down,” she continued. “We remember our past and we learn from it."

The House and Senate initially passed different legislation, with disagreements about what hurdles a locality must clear before taking down a statue. A conference committee hashed out the differences.

The compromise measure says a locality must hold a public hearing before voting to remove or otherwise alter a monument. If it decides to remove one, it must be offered to “any museum, historical society, government or military battlefield," although the governing body ultimately gets the say on the “final disposition.”

The measure wouldn't apply cemeteries or the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, which has a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

Northam, who last year was embroiled in a scandal over a racist photo that appeared in his medical school yearbook, announced at the start of the legislative session what he called a historic justice agenda aimed at telling the accurate and complete story of Virginia’s past.

In addition to the monuments bill, lawmakers also have advanced bills removing old racist laws that were technically still on the books, substituting the state's holiday honoring Lee and Jackson for one on Election Day and creating a commission to recommend a replacement for the Lee statue Virginia sent to the U.S. Capitol. They have also passed legislation that provides protections and funding for historic African American cemeteries.

Another bill introduced this year took aim at a controversial statue on Capitol Square, one of Harry F. Byrd Sr., a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator who's considered the architect of the state's "massive resistance" policy to public school integration.

Republican Del. Wendell Walker introduced the bill that would have removed the bronze figure to needle Democrats on the larger monuments issue, saying “what's good for the goose is good for the gander.” Byrd, a Democrat, led a political machine that dominated Virginia politics for decades.

But when met with some agreement from across the aisle on removing the statue, Walker asked that the bill be killed.


UPDATE (Feb. 12):

Legislation that would allow Virginia localities control over Confederate monuments has passed the state Senate and House of Delegates.

While lawmakers have passed bills in both legislative bodies -


- differences still need to be worked out before anything can be finalized in Virginia code.

The House of Delegates approved measures that would give cities and counties the power to remove monuments in a public space.

57th District Del. Sally Hudson has been an advocate for the legislation since she campaigned for office.

“Some have accused us of trying to erase history. We’re not. We’re trying to finally tell it,” Hudson said on the floor of the House Tuesday, February 11. “When I see the statues, like so many in Charlottesville, I can see the tires screeching from the car attack that took one life and ravaged so many more, the ones with scares that didn’t die that day, almost never get their stories told. That’s really what this bill is all about.”

HB 1537 says the monuments would have to be offered to museums, historical societies, governments or military battlefields for 30 days before removal.

State senators also passed a bill that would grant a locality the authority to “remove, relocate, or alter any monument or memorial for war veterans located in its public space, regardless of when erected.”

SB 183 includes similar requirements found in the House’s version, but adds a public comment period, a historic review, and a majority vote from the local governing body.

Frank Dukes is a professor at the University of Virginia and a member of groups that advocate for local power over the monuments.

"It is really a monumental decision, but there are different versions of the bill, so they have to go back into the House and the Senate for them to figure out which one are they going to pass, is there going to be some combination?" Dukes said.

The professor believes that allowing localities to decide what can be done with the statues gives a voice to the people who live there.

"It’s going to allow communities to allow conversations about their history," Dukes said.

A bill needs to be signed by Governor Ralph Northam before becoming law.

A spokesperson for Charlottesville says once the bill is signed, the city will start a process to remove its two Confederate statues from public parks after their years-long legal battle over the statues. A judge

with tarps amid the litigation.

Other city governments that have signaled their intent to remove a Confederate monument include Alexandria, Portsmouth and Norfolk, which voted to move the “Johnny Reb” statue to a cemetery and has

. In Richmond, where a commission convened by the mayor recommended removing one of five Confederate statues along the city's famed Monument Avenue, the City Council passed a resolution last month asking the General Assembly for local control.

One of those five statues, a soaring tribute to Lee, is state property. Northam has said there's an “ongoing discussion” about that statue's future, though his office has declined to answer further questions.


A controversial bill that would grant local governments in Virginia the power to move Confederate monuments is moving forward.

, proposed by Senator Mamie E. Locke, advanced out of the Senate Local Government Committee on an 8-7 party line vote Monday.

If passed by the full General Assembly, the bill –

– would authorize Virginia localities “to have control over monuments and remove the existing statewide prohibition against removing Confederate War memorials.”

Right now, Virginia state law bans cities and towns from removing any war memorials.

In the long-ongoing lawsuit over two Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, a judge

that the statues were classified as war monuments under that state law from the 1950s, which prevents war memorials from being removed by any locality, and effectively blocked the city from removing the statues.

The law makes it "unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with" any war monuments; Charlottesville argued in court that state law applied only to war memorials built after the law was amended in 1998 (the statute was originally passed in 1904 and codified in the 1950s, after the statues were erected in the 1920s), but that argument did not hold up.

Separately, prosecutors for the city of Norfolk are

to free speech, as part of a lawsuit seeking to remove an 80-foot monument in downtown Norfolk.

The long-running debate over Confederate statues gained new momentum after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 descended into violence and a car attack left a woman dead.

In the aftermath of the violence, many places around the country quickly started taking monuments down, but not in Virginia.

Supporters of the legislation cited the deadly rally in their push for the bill over the past two years.

Lisa Draine had tears in her eyes at a committee hearing in 2019 as she spoke of her daughter, Sophie, who was severely injured when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into the Charlottesville crowd.

“I couldn’t imagine that a statue had brought this to our town,” Draine said. “My daughter could have been your daughter.”

Opponents of the bill have argued that it could allow discrimination.

“It’s painfully clear discrimination based on Confederate national origin is the basis of this bill,” said Ed Willis in 2019. Like many other opponents, Willis said his ancestors served in the Civil War.

Late last year, following long-standing discussions, Richmond City Council

over the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Gov. Northam's endorsement of bills to grant that authority came soon afterward, along with support for a bill to authorize the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol


A nearly identical bill to give localities authority to remove war monuments in Virginia was

, while Republicans had control of the General Assembly. Following November's elections, in which Democrats took Virginia's statehouse, leaders of the Democratic Party pledged to make the bill a priority this year.

Here is the current text of § 15.2-1812 of the Code of Virginia:

A locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict, to include the following monuments or memorials: Algonquin (1622), French and Indian (1754-1763), Revolutionary (1775-1783), War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican (1846-1848), Confederate or Union monuments or memorials of the War Between the States (1861-1865), Spanish-American (1898), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), Korean (1950-1953), Vietnam (1965-1973), Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm (1990-1991), Global War on Terrorism (2000- ), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001- ), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003- ). If such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same. For purposes of this section, "disturb or interfere with" includes removal of, damaging or defacing monuments or memorials, or, in the case of the War Between the States, the placement of Union markings or monuments on previously designated Confederate memorials or the placement of Confederate markings or monuments on previously designated Union memorials.

Under Senate Bill 183, the text would read as follows:

A locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict, to include the following monuments or memorials: Algonquin (1622), French and Indian (1754-1763), Revolutionary (1775-1783), War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican (1846-1848), Confederate or Union monuments or memorials of the War Between the States (1861-1865), Spanish-American (1898), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), Korean (1950-1953), Vietnam (1965-1973), Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm (1990-1991), Global War on Terrorism (2000- ), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001- ), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003- ). A locality may remove, relocate, or alter any such monument or memorial, regardless of when erected.

No action has yet been taken on a House bill that proposes an identical measure to SB 183.

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