With a recent stroke of his pen, Gov. Ralph Northam put Virginia at the forefront of efforts across the South to remove symbols of white supremacy from public spaces.
The law signed by Northam last month overturned the state’s prohibition on the removal of Confederate memorials, allowing local governments in Virginia to decide for themselves whether to remove these symbols of oppression.
It was a major step forward for the commonwealth, which has more Confederate memorials than any state except Georgia.
And it came just two months before the fifth anniversary of the horrific event that ignited a nationwide movement to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces. It was on June 17, 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof – who had posted pictures of himself with a Confederate flag – walked into the historic “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine Black church members during a prayer meeting.
The terror attack – and Roof’s embrace of the flag – inspired then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the flag’s removal from the state Capitol grounds, a move approved by state lawmakers. Then, Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, summarily ordered the removal of several versions of the Confederate flag that flew alongside a towering monument just steps from the Capitol.
Since then, a total of 138 Confederate symbols, including 58 monuments, have been removed from public places across the country, according to the latest count by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a 2019 update of its Whose Heritage? report, the SPLC cataloged nearly 1,800 monuments and other Confederate symbols across the country.
In 2019, eight Confederate symbols across the country – including four monuments – were removed from public places, and five more are now in the process of removal. In addition, five memorials bearing the names of Confederate figures were renamed last year.
Most Southern states, however, still celebrate the so-called “Lost Cause” by designating a special month and/or day in honor of Confederate “heroes.” Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi each had their own Confederate Memorial Day in April. North Carolina and South Carolina celebrate their version in May. Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee reserve a day in June.
But pretending that these state holidays are about preserving Southern history is an insult to the residents of these states.
“Virginia is on the right track in allowing for the removal of Confederate memorials,” said Lecia Brooks, a member of the senior leadership team at the SPLC. “Although these memorials are branded as ‘preserving history,’ they are actually state-sponsored propaganda designed to romanticize the Civil War as if it were a noble crusade, instead of what it actually was: an unsuccessful effort to prolong the slavery and persecution of African Americans.
“These physical manifestations of white supremacy should be placed in museums, where they can be studied and understood in their appropriate historical context.”
The SPLC in 2019 launched a digital initiative to correct the false narratives of the “Lost Cause” mythology, which idolizes people like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – Confederate generals who fought against the United States in order to preserve slavery.
Losing the ‘Lost Cause’
In addition to allowing for the removal of Confederate memorials, Virginia will form a commission to revisit two statues representing the state, including one of Lee, in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
What’s more, Virginia has replaced Lee-Jackson Day with Election Day as an official state holiday. The move will make it easier for Virginians, including the descendants of enslaved Black people who were long denied the right to vote, to cast their ballots because they will have a day off work to do so.
Virginians should know well what the Confederate flag and other symbols represent.
In August 2017, hundreds of white nationalists converged on the college town of Charlottesville to protest the city’s decision to remove a monument to Lee. In a night march, they carried torches as they yelled Nazi slogans and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” In the daylight hours, they clashed violently with counter-demonstrators, and a neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of them, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer. The city’s decision to remove the Lee statue also prompted a lawsuit to protect the city’s monuments. The city lost.
But starting July 1, under the new law, Charlottesville and other Virginia cities will have the authority to decide the fate of the symbols within their jurisdictions. Northam also signed a law striking nearly 100 instances of racist or discriminatory language – such as a prohibition against white and Black people living in the same neighborhood – from the state’s Acts of Assembly, the official record of laws passed each year.
“Racial discrimination is rooted in many of the choices we have made about who and what to honor, and in many of the laws that have historically governed this Commonwealth,” Northam said. “These new laws make Virginia more equitable, just, and inclusive, and I am proud to sign them.”
History of oppression
The history behind Confederate monuments puts the need for removal into context.
They began to appear shortly after the Civil War. But they spiked during two specific periods when white supremacists were pushing back against the efforts of Black people to achieve more equality in American society.
The first spike started around 1900, when Southern states rewrote their constitutions and enacted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise Black citizens, legalize racial oppression and reverse the political gains made by the Black community during the Reconstruction era.
This period, which lasted into the 1920s, coincided with the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan – which was founded just after the Civil War to restrict the gains made by Black people after slavery. During the 1920s, the KKK grew to an estimated 6 million members and was considered a mainstream organization. This second wave of the KKK began with a cross-burning ceremony atop Stone Mountain near Atlanta. The property, used often for Klan rituals, became the site of a giant, mountainside carving of Confederate generals, begun in the 1920s and not finished until the 1970s, after the property was purchased by the state. It has been described as “the world’s largest shrine to white supremacy.”
The second spike in Confederate memorial construction began in the mid-1950s and lasted through the late 1960s, amid violent, white supremacist resistance to the civil rights movement. During this period, in 1963, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace raised the Confederate battle flag over his state’s Capitol, in defiance of desegregation, on the eve of a visit from U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a staunch civil rights advocate.
Currently, Virginia still has 111 Confederate monuments and, overall, 242 symbols honoring the “Lost Cause.”
The new laws signed by Northam provide hope not only for Virginia but for all the South.
“People across the country were horrified by the images of white nationalists violently defending symbols honoring the Confederacy in Charlottesville,” Brooks said. “We now stand with Virginia and other states that are working to dispel the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ by ridding themselves of all Confederate icons.”
Photo by Laura Buckman/AFP via Getty Images