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Virginia lawmakers pass bill allowing Confederate monument removals

Credit: WRIC
Credit: WRIC(WHSV)
Published: Mar. 9, 2020 at 12:13 PM EDT
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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 -

and

- 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.

____________

UPDATE (Feb. 11):

Local Virginia governments may soon have the power to remove Confederate monuments in their public spaces under legislation approved Tuesday by state lawmakers.

Since a violent 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Republican lawmakers had rejected renewed calls to amend a war memorials law to allow the controversial statues to come down. But the GOP in November lost full control of the General Assembly, giving Democrats an opportunity to target the statues that critics say distastefully glorify Virginia's history as a slaveholding state.

On Tuesday, largely along party lines, the Democrat-led House and Senate passed measures that would give cities and counties the autonomy to "remove, relocate, contextualize, cover or alter” the monuments in their public spaces.

Del. Delores McQuinn, a Democrat from Richmond who sponsored the House bill, said it would let local communities decide for themselves “how they want to memorialize history, whether it's right in your face or they want to memorialize it in another way.”

Del. Jay Jones, who is black, said in a speech Monday that many of the monuments were erected in the 20th century, decades after the Civil War had ended and during the “throes of Jim Crow." He said people in Norfolk, his district, overwhelmingly want a “Johnny Reb” statue removed from a downtown square.

“Every time I drive past it — which is every day to get to my law office — my heart breaks a little bit,” he said.

The measures' opponents, who compare removing Confederate monuments to erasing history, have raised concerns that the legislation could lead to a push to take down memorials to other controversial conflicts, such as the Vietnam War.

“I do not believe this will end well," said Republican Del. Charles Poindexter, who added that the bill sent a “tough message” to every veteran or dead veteran's family.

Each chamber advanced different versions of the legislation. The House and Senate may next conform the language of the bills to match or advance them to a conference committee that will work out the differences.

The

imposes several hurdles not included in the House version that a local government must take before removing a monument. Under the measure, local leaders must first pass a resolution stating its intention to remove the monument, then request a report from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources with background about the person depicted and the circumstances under which the monument was established.

The locality would then have to make that report public and then hold a public hearing before it could vote. A decision to remove a monument would require a 2/3 vote or could be sent to voters for a referendum.

Under both the House and Senate bills, the locality would have to offer the monument to a “museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield” for a period of 30 days, though both measures say the local government has the “sole authority” to determine its final disposition.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said at the start of this year's legislative session

. He also said he backs a measure advancing through both chambers that lays out a process for removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that Virginia contributed to the U.S. Capitol grounds.

That legislation, which establishes a commission that would recommend a prominent Virginian who could replace Lee as one of the state's two contributions in the National Statuary Hall Collection, passed the Senate on Monday and the House on Tuesday.

After the 2017 white supremacist rally, which was convened in part to protest Charlottesville's attempt to remove a statue of Lee from a downtown park, many places around the country quickly started taking Confederate monuments down. The event descended into chaos and a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens more.

But in Virginia, a state that was home to two Confederate capitals, localities were hamstrung by the existing law.

Charlottesville, which later also sought to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, has been fighting the issue in court. A judge

with tarps amid the litigation.

Charlottesville is encouraged by the progress on the legislation, city spokesman Brian Wheeler said.

“Should legislation be signed by the Governor, the City will identify the procedural steps it needs to complete in order to remove the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from its public parks," Wheeler wrote in an email.

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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