Democrats in Virginia say they will seek to give local governments authority to remove or relocate Confederate monuments, a reaction to the violence in Charlottesville that promises to energize several elections in the state this year and next.
A 1904 statute prohibits local jurisdictions from trying to “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials” erected to honor veterans of war and has been an obstacle for officials who have wanted to remove politically charged statues from Loudoun County, Old Town Alexandria and elsewhere.
Virginia is one of several Southern states with laws that protect Confederate monuments. Others include North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.
The law — amended several times to include memorials to every war the United States has fought — is now at the center of a legal dispute in Charlottesville over city efforts to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a courthouse park, which prompted the violent protests earlier this month that led to the death of Heather Heyer, 32.
With support from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill in 2016 to strengthen the law, Democrat state legislators now say that the time is ripe to give local jurisdictions more say in how to handle Virginia’s approximately 200 Confederate monuments — more than are located in any other state.
“This has been a matter of dispute for years, and it’s all come to a head after Charlottesville,” said state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), who plans to file an amendment to the law when the legislative filing period for the General Assembly starts in late November.
“I think local officials are in the best position to make decisions about what is appropriate for their community,” said Wexton, one of eight Democrats vying to compete for the 10th Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R). Some of her rivals in that race have called for removing Confederate statues altogether or moving them to museums or cemeteries.
Comstock has argued against tearing down or moving the statues. But, mindful of how controversial the issue can be in her increasingly moderate district, she also has supported the idea of erecting more memorials to other aspects of the Civil War, including slavery.
The 1904 law was enacted when the generation of Civil War veterans was dying out. Their descendants began erecting statues to memorialize the soldiers and to repudiate concessions made by Virginia during the Reconstruction Era that ended in the late 1870s, historians say.
“The Reconstruction period was something that most white Virginians had viewed as a mistake and a tragedy,” said Brian Daugherity, who teaches post-Civil War history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “So, when they regained control of state politics, they went about setting up their own political and social views of Reconstruction and the Civil War and everything related to that.”
The monuments law went largely unchallenged until a 2015 legal dispute in Danville over the removal of a Confederate flag, which led a Circuit Court judge to rule that the statute doesn’t apply to monuments erected before 1998, the year after the law was changed to apply to all localities in the state instead of just counties.
That ruling, which was never successfully appealed, is now also part of the Circuit Court case in Charlottesville.
With the issue unresolved, “it’s going to become a bigger political battle in Virginia, because most of the localities — the cities in particular — are Democratic and in many cases have an African American majority,” Daugherity said. “Whereas, the state government is still rather conservative.”
Last week, vandals spray-painted obscenities on a nameless Confederate soldier statue that has stood outside the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg since 1908. A few days earlier, conservative groups planning a rally to save the monument canceled their demonstration out of concern that the event would be co-opted by protesters on both sides.
Since then, Phyllis J. Randall (D), chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, has joined the mayor of Charlottesville and several other local officials from the state in calling on the General Assembly to give localities more leeway in dealing with monuments.
Randall, who is African American, says she would like to move the statue to a local museum or cemetery but wants to defer to her board colleagues and the community.
“The bottom line is I’d like to see the county to be able to have a discussion about it,” she said. “It’s not my decision alone; it is a decision of our body, if we get the right to make the decision.”
Some conservatives in the area are using any effort to touch the monuments as a political rallying cry.
“There’s too many people right now that are looking to tear down statues like this, that are looking to cleanse our history,” Shak Hill, who is challenging Comstock in the GOP primary, said in a Facebook Live video shot with the Leesburg statue in the background.
A recent poll shows that Virginians appear to be split over the issue of Confederate monuments. But Democratic politicians running for office this year increasingly appear to be embracing their removal from public grounds, said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of state politics.
The fate of those Democrats — including Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is running for governor against Republican Ed Gillespie — will be an important factor in any effort to change state law and give localities the power to remove monuments.
“If the Democrats remain outnumbered almost 2-1 in the House of Delegates, it may be a tougher sell,” Holsworth said. “I think some members will be looking at the results and see where the public seems to be.”
With Republican legislators vowing to oppose any changes to the 1904 state law, state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) plans to pursue an alternative strategy that would benefit only the City of Alexandria in its efforts to move its “Appomattox” statue away from a busy intersection in Old Town.
Last year, Ebbin resisted calls from the Alexandria City Council to champion changes to the 1904 law, which he said would be a political “non-starter.” But he recently learned about a separate, but similar, 1890 law that is specific to the Old Town monument.
He said he now intends to file a bill that would amend that law to allow the city to move the statue about 20 feet from the intersection of Washington and Prince streets to the lawn of the Lyceum history museum.
Ebbin argues that the earlier law may exempt the city from the 1904 statute and that it would be easier to change a more narrowly focused law in the current political climate.
“I support the ability for all localities to have autonomy on tributes to the Confederacy on their land,” Ebbin said. “But I’m most concerned with honoring the request of my locality.”