The statue of a Confederate general that helped spark a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 was removed on Saturday after a long legal battle.
The small Virginia city said the equestrian statue of Gen Robert E Lee and a nearby statue of Gen Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would be removed to storage. Designated public viewing areas for the removals had been established and a small crowd of onlookers cheered as the statue of Lee was hoisted away first, lifted by crane from its stone pedestal and taken away on a flat-bed truck.
Charlottesville’s mayor, Nikuyah Walker, gave a speech in front of public and media as the crane with lifting equipment was moved into position in the early morning.
“Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia, and America grapple with the sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain,” she said.
Lee led Confederate forces during the American civil war, which the Confederacy fought between 1861 and 1865 in an attempt to maintain slavery. Jackson rose to fame in the first years of the conflict before dying of pneumonia after being mistakenly shot by his own men.
The Jackson statue was erected in 1921 and Lee in 1924, nearly 60 years after the war ended in the total defeat of the Confederacy but was followed an era of official racial segregation across southern states.
The statues were toppled more than five years after calls for their removal began to gain momentum. In 2016, Zyahna Bryant, then a 16-year-old high-school student, was given an assignment that asked her to describe something she could change. She started a petition to remove the statue of Lee.
Bryant tweeted on Saturday: “My work here is done.”
In response to Bryant’s 2016 petition, the city council had set up a commission on race, memorials and public spaces. In February 2017, the council voted for removal, angering white supremacist groups.
“I literally felt lighter when the statues came down, it was such a relief,” said Jalane Schmidt, a Charlottesville resident and associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia as she watched Lee’s removal.
“Four years ago I was teargassed by cops during the Klan rally, a bunch of my community members were injured, some permanently. We have literally shed blood, sweat and tears over this,” she added.
The Lee statue became a rallying point for such extremists, culminating in a “Unite the Right” rally in August that year. Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marched and clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville to defend the Lee statue and a counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed. A white supremacist was convicted of her murder.
On Saturday, prominent human rights lawyer, author and active Virginia Democrat Qasim Rashid tweeted a clip of Lee’s removal and wrote: “Robert E Lee chose to wage war against America and helped kill 600,000 soldiers for his twisted vision of advancing slavery of Black people. Today – 156 years after his surrender – his statue has been removed from the Charlottesville public square. Good riddance.”
Because of litigation and changes to a state law, the city was unable to act before holding public hearings and offering the statue to any museum, historical society or battlefield. This week, the city said it had received 10 such expressions of interest, “six out-of-state and four in-state that are all under review”.
Take ’Em Down CVille, a group that campaigns for racial justice, applauded news of the planned removal.
“The messages from the public were moving and powerful,” it said. “No one believes that removing the statues will end white supremacy but this is an important step – and one long past due.”
Preparations included the installation of fencing, the city said, adding that both statues would be stored in a secure location on city property until the council reaches a decision on their relocation.
The removal follows years of contention, community anguish and litigation. A long, winding legal fight coupled with changes in a state law that protected war memorials had held up the removal for years.
Saturday’s actions came almost four years after violence erupted at the infamous “Unite the Right” extremist rally. After a torchlit march and racist chanting, rightwingers including members of known white supremacy groups clashed violently with counter-protesters, culminating in Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester, being murdered when she was mown down by a car driven into a demonstration.
The crisis sparked a national debate over racial equity and the then president, Donald Trump, inflamed the conflict by insisting there was “blame on both sides” of the issue in Charlottesville over that bloody weekend.
Historian Michael Beschloss and others remarked on the long connection between the statues and the Ku Klux Klan, including in Charlottesville. White hooded marchers were seen at the extremist rally in August 2017 and a KKK gathering had taken place there just days before.
The KKK used to give money to the University of Virginia, based in Charlottesville, and the university has previously published an account of the Klan’s history of flourishing there.
The state supreme court is currently considering legal arguments concerning the removal of a statue of Lee and other Confederate figures on the Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia’s capital.
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