A few more weeks of peering at century-old monuments to the Confederacy around Virginia was more than many protesters could bear.
Not that I’m mad at them. Most of the monuments were erected during the reign of Jim Crow. To Blacks, they’re a strong symbol of inequality, terror and second-class citizenship.
A new state law taking effect July 1 allows localities to decide what to do with war memorials on their property. Up till now, communities faced high hurdles to legally move them.
Then the videotaped police slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis happened late last month. Demonstrations mushroomed nationwide. As one result, in Virginia, damage and outright removal of symbols to the “Lost Cause” – or “the defenders of slavery,” depending on your point of view – have happened with growing frequency.
So, off came the heads of four statues in Portsmouth, in the majority Black city’s Olde Towne section. Demonstrators also pulled down one of the statues, seriously injuring a protester.
Down tumbled the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the doomed Confederacy, along Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue. Gov. Ralph Northam’s push to remove the bronze memorial to Gen. Robert E. Lee on state property along the same boulevard faces a legal battle. Two other statues have come down in the city, including one of a Confederate general and, just Wednesday night, of a Confederate soldier.
The keynote speaker at the unveiling of this monument in 1913 offered a full throated defense of slavery, telling the crowd “the real inequality of the races had made subordination prescriptive." https://t.co/SsupFlhcsB https://t.co/DwVKvrmx3w
— Ned Oliver (@nedoliver) June 17, 2020
Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, sensing the mood of demonstrators and fearing someone could get hurt near the 1907 statue of “Johnny Reb” downtown, ordered it removed. The city will hold a public hearing July 7 on what to do with the statue and the 80-foot monument it formerly sat atop. They could move to a nearby cemetery.
Virginia Beach covered the Confederate monument at the municipal center, placed barriers around it and said cameras were monitoring the site – as a warning to would-be vandals. Newport News put tarps around its Confederate monument, with the mayor saying the city wanted to protect people and avoid damage to the 1909 structure.
It’s been a dizzying, overdue dismantling. Black protesters, joined by some Whites, Latinos and Asians, wondered why these paeans to human subjugation stood so long, in places of prominence around the commonwealth.
A list by the Virginia Public Access Project reveals many of the monuments in the state arose decades after the Civil War, but at a time Jim Crow laws and customs had gained a foothold. Lynchings of Black men and women were common. It was slavery by another name.
It would’ve been more orderly had local officials convinced residents to follow the prescribed regulations promised after July 1. Too many people, though, were sick and tired of studies, discussion – and the status quo.
Take Portsmouth, for example.
City councils past and present broached removing the Confederate monument, with Black council members at the forefront of the discussion. The battle intensified after a White supremacist shot and killed nine members of a Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Yet Portsmouth council members and others couldn’t convince previous General Assembly legislators to amend the law.
Nor did the Portsmouth council have the guts to call a public hearing and get everybody’s feelings on the record. I wrote about that in 2017.
Would such a hearing have been painful? Divisive? Lengthy? Sure. But it was also necessary.
The inertia in Portsmouth and Richmond, where its monuments have been studied to death, led protesters to take matters into their own hands. Literally.
Louie Gibbs is vice president of the Portsmouth NAACP. He told me this week the killing of George Floyd caused an “overflow of exhaustion.
“People are tired of promises that aren’t kept, and they’re taking it in their own hands.”
He called discussion about the Confederate monument last week by Portsmouth council members just “the same delay tactics.”
I doubt that, since state legislators finally changed the law covering the monuments. Yet it’s hard to argue the results in Portsmouth, Richmond, and elsewhere.
The memorials to Confederate nostalgia should’ve been relocated decades ago. Contextually and geographically, local officials need to assign them a better place.