On a cool night in Charlottesville this week, dozens of people armed with protest signs and rigid opinions packed into a room to contend with a controversy facing cities throughout the South: What to do about the symbols of their Confederate past.
At issue in the town 120 miles southwest of the nation’s capital was a bronze equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee that stands in a downtown park named in his honor.
After months of contentious debate — and a meeting repeatedly disrupted by attendees — the City Council voted 3 to 2 to remove the statue. The decision triggered both cheers and boos from the overflow crowd. Some waved signs with bold black letters: “Remove the statue.” Others held up images of the memorial next to the word “SAVE.”
Before the vote, Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, the council’s only African American member and the man who led the push for change, pleaded with residents to try to better understand each other.
“You, my friends — regardless of your skin color, regardless of your position on this issue — are not my enemy,” he said. “However, I will be very clear, we will not be bullied. We will not be pushed away. And we — we, for the last time — are not going anywhere.”
At least two people in the crowd who interrupted his address had to be escorted from the room.
A nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols exploded in 2015 in the months after a white gunman motivated by animosity toward African Americans, massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. Some major retailers banned related merchandise as lawmakers in states across the country called for flags to be taken down and school names to be changed.
But in the commonwealth, where both Lee and the battle flag were born, the issue is particularly fraught. The state is home to legions of reenactors, descendants of Southern soldiers, Lee devotees and flag-revering groups who have fervently defended Confederate history for decades.
In Charlottesville, the council’s vote may ultimately be nothing more than symbolic. Those opposed to the statue’s removal intend to file a lawsuit in the coming days, and they’ve pointed to a state statute that says Virginia towns have no authority over the war memorials they inherited from past generations.
“If such are erected,” the law reads, “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.”
“It pretty much straight-up bars them from doing this, and that’s our argument,” said attorney Elliott Harding, who accused the council members of “thumbing their nose at the law” while setting up a legal fight that could cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the “Save the Robert E. Lee Statue” Facebook page had nearly 13,000 likes. Beneath a post requesting donations to help fund the impending lawsuit, an image of the memorial was inscribed with these words: “THE LEGAL BATTLE BEGINS.”
Charlottesville isn’t the first Virginia municipality to pursue such a change — and one recent attempt will offer them little encouragement.
In September, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway and ask the Virginia General Assembly for permission to move a renowned Confederate statue.
Two months later, state legislators who represent the city said they wouldn’t even try to present a bill to their colleagues because the effort was unlikely to succeed.
Such legislation was “a non-starter,” said one state lawmaker. Another said he had received a dozen calls opposing the statue’s removal and none in favor of it.
Alexandria’s city attorney has said that moving the 1889 statue may require the state law to be changed.
In June 2015, Loudoun County officials came to the same conclusion, deciding that they could do nothing about the armed Confederate soldier standing in front of the courthouse.
In Charlottesville, Bellamy began to consider the issue in 2013 when he held a community cookout in the park named for Lee, infuriating a number of the community’s African American elders.
“They lit into me like you would not believe,” he said.
The scolding also came with a history lesson.
The statue was unveiled in 1924 during a Confederate reunion, according to the city’s website. To celebrate, 100 cadets paraded through town wearing the South’s colors.
In the decades that followed, Bellamy said African Americans had been spat upon just for walking in the park, which many came to view as a symbol of racism.
Bellamy and another council member hosted a news conference last year where they announced their plan to remove the statue and change the park’s name. A number of protesters showed up with Confederate flags.
Afterward, he said, someone shouted at him: “You should be hung from a tree.”
In the months that followed, Bellamy said, he became a target. Soon, someone discovered a number of his old tweets, including several that were racist, sexist and homophobic. He later apologized and resigned from his teaching job, but he remained on the council and continued to fight for the statue’s removal.
A special commission the city had created to consider different options recommended that the statue remain but that the park be dramatically altered to offer visitors more context about the horrors of slavery and the Civil War.
Mayor Mike Signer (D) supported that concept, as he explained at this week’s meeting.
“I want to be very clear: My vote is not for this statue. I despise the Jim Crow era. I revile the racism and white supremacy of our past that certainly is included in these statues’ history and in their meaning to many today,” he said, adding later that ignoring such remnants of the past would fix nothing.
“We must see and defy these monuments to overcome what they mean,” he said. “That is a more uncomfortable reality, to be sure.”