Virginia governor backs bill to let localities decide on Confederate monuments

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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT/WHSV) β€” Governor Ralph Northam is proposing a bill for the General Assembly to consider that would give local governments control over Confederate monuments in Virginia.

If passed in the General Assembly, the bill would authorize Virginia localities β€œto have control over monuments and remove the existing statewide prohibition against removing Confederate War memorials.”

The announcement came Thursday, following Richmond City Council voting to ask the General Assembly to allow them to have control over the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue earlier this week.

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

In the long-ongoing lawsuit over two Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, a judge ruled earlier this year 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 arguing that the state law infringes on the city's right 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.

Northam also announced a bill to authorize the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol to provide for removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Every state in America has two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection to honor notable people from their state. Virginia's are George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Virginia chose to add Lee back in 1909.

Some states have recently removed statues honoring Confederate leaders, like Florida, which recently replaced its statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with one of the civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Northam's proposal would include a replacement statue of a well-known Virginian citizen.

During the Thursday press conference, Northam also proposed a bill to authorize the DHR to create a Historic African American Cemetery Grant Program and allow the DHR to add cemeteries to the list that receives annual maintenance.

In budget-related proposals, Northam proposed allotting money for the Historic African American Cemeteries Fund, Historic Highway Markers, the Virginia African American Trail and the American Civil War Museum - just to name a few organizations and locations on the list.