The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board recently argued Charlottesville should not remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Park, arguing such an action would be illegal, inefficient and would fix nothing. After acknowledging the statue’s racist symbolism, the board argued it is better to contextualize the monument by telling the stories of African Americans in the antebellum period — both enslaved and free — and being clear about the statue’s history. But the board’s piece contradicts itself in key areas, and it ends up sounding a confused note. The statue’s glorification, the board claims, has inflicted clear harm on the Charlottesville community and, yet, its removal would fix nothing. An exploration of the Lee statue’s history reveals the insidiousness of both this monument to racism and the law which proscribes its removal and our inaction today. The Charlottesville City Council was right to vote for its removal, and it should proceed with due haste in tearing it down.
The Lee statue has a well-documented history available on the city of Charlottesville’s website. Paul Goodloe McIntire, the venerable namesake of the McIntire School of Commerce, purchased, beautified and donated several city blocks-turned-parks to the city during the early 20th century, particularly the 1920s. Lee Park was the first of the four parks he would donate to Charlottesville, and McIntire insisted it should have at its center a towering statue of Robert E. Lee “as a memorial to his parents.” When the statue was presented to the city on May 21, 1924, McIntire instructed that various Confederate veterans’ groups be fully in charge of planning the event — its unveiling featured a Confederate reunion and “one hundred cadets from the Virginia Military Institute parad[ing] through the center of Charlottesville decorated with Confederate colors.”
The erection of a statue commemorating a man who had been crucial in the fight to preserve slavery and betray the United States, its values and its Constitution, was celebrated by a group of traitors and cadets wearing traitors’ colors. That is a vile mark on Charlottesville’s history. Every day we keep the Lee statue up in Lee Park, we send a message degrading to the black experience in this country, harmful to the eradication of that pernicious and stubborn historical revisionism known as the Lost Cause and threatening to the liberal philosophical principles of the Framers, increasingly contested by the meteoric rise of the far right and a post-truth world.
The Editorial Board implicitly acknowledges some of the consequences of the statue’s continued presence, which is why the board begins its argument by saying that “the Council’s decision to move the statue is justified,” and that the statue’s glorification of the Confederacy “has inflicted clear harm on our community.” Yet, in the very next sentence, the board says that the statue has “historical value,” and that the effort would be too costly. It would be costly in part because Virginia state law prohibits removing “memorials for war veterans,” which entails litigation. The board is right about that. But it is worth noting the language of Title 15.2, Chapter 1812 of the Virginia Code that makes the removal of the Lee statue illegal. It refers to the Civil War as the “War Between the States” on two separate occasions. That moniker is itself a form of Lost Cause revisionism, implying that the Civil War was between two sovereign groupings of states, rather than between the United States of America and a rebellion which had hijacked the state governments of the South, which was the legal basis on which President Abraham Lincoln prosecuted the war. This version of history legitimizes secession and pushes the false narrative that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery. Ignoring this sinister part of Virginia state law is a measure of civil disobedience that Charlottesville should have the courage to take.
The removal of the Lee statue from the soon-to-be-renamed Lee Park is not about “hiding or ignoring remnants of the past.” It is about rededicating ourselves to the arduous task of confronting our past and paving the way toward more inclusive public spaces and a more inclusive America. No amount of plaques next to the statue can explain away the glorification of racism and its extended reach into the present. So long as it stands, a physical and moral blight will continue to cast a pall over one of Charlottesville’s most enjoyable public spaces. Whatever the cost, the Lee statue should be removed, and a more appropriate and educational monument should take its place.
Olivier Weiss is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.