CHARLOTTESVILLE — For all the fiery debate aroused by public memorials to the Confederacy, a lawsuit seeking to block this city from removing statues of two Southern Civil War generals led to dry courtroom arguments Friday over obscure provisions of Virginia law, with a judge declining to decide whether to throw out the legal challenge.
One of the statues, of Robert E. Lee, has stood in a city park for 93 years and was the focal point of violent clashes last month involving hundreds of white supremacist demonstrators and counterprotesters. The other statue, of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, is on public land nearby. Together they have become the latest epicenter in a national debate over the propriety of civic monuments honoring the Confederacy and how the history of the Old South should be interpreted.
Several plaintiffs, including the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sued Charlottesville in March, shortly after the City Council, by a 3-to-2 vote, decided to remove the two hulking bronze sculptures. On Friday, Judge Richard E. Moore, of Charlottesville Circuit Court, listened as a lawyer for the city argued the lawsuit should be dismissed.
About a hundred spectators crowded into Moore’s courtroom, anticipating definitive action by the judge. Moore said he hopes to issue a ruling in two to three weeks, “but that might be overly optimistic.”
One of the plaintiffs, B. Frank Earnest, referring to his many Confederate-soldier ancestors, said in an interview, “this is all about family.”
To Northerners in the 1860s, he said, the Civil War, “was like Afghanistan,” meaning a far-off conflict, while to Southerners, “it was about defending our towns, our homes.” During a break in the hearing, glancing across the courtroom at Lisa Robertson, the lawyer handling the case for the city, Earnest said, “This is about punishing us for our ancestors.”
Robertson and her boss, City Attorney S. Craig Brown, declined to comment.
No matter the outcome of Friday’s legal arguments, the proceeding is unlikely to be the final round in the fight about the statues.
If Moore sides with the city and throws out the lawsuit, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its co-plaintiffs, including a descendant of the Lee sculptor, could ask a state appeals court to review the ruling. In that event, lawyers said, Charlottesville might be barred from removing the statues during the appeal, although it is possible a higher court would decline to hear the case.
If Moore rejects the city’s motion to dismiss the matter, a date could be set for a trial before the judge, perhaps weeks or months from now.
Opponents of Confederate memorials across the South point out most were installed not immediately after the Civil War but in the late 1800s and early 20th century, amid the rise of Jim Crow laws and a post-Reconstruction resurgence in anti-black violence. They argue the monuments amounted to revisionist history, an effort to reassert white supremacy and give an aura of nobility and heroism to the long-lost secessionist cause.
Echoing like-minded heritage organizations, the Sons of Confederate Veterans asserts on its website the memorials rightly honor “the tenacity” of the South’s “citizen-soldiers.” The Confederacy waged “the second American revolution” not primarily in defense of slavery but to protect “the underpinnings of our democratic society,” meaning states’ rights. “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor,” the group contends.
Charlottesville’s Jackson statue was erected in 1921, and the Lee statue went up three years later. In February of this year, Charlottesville joined many other American communities in deciding to get rid of conspicuous memorials to the Confederacy. The council voted to sell each statue to the highest bidder and require the buyer to arrange and pay for the removal.
Outside the courthouse, about 30 activists opposed to the statues chanted racial justice slogans on the sidewalks, holding signs that read, “TAKE THEM DOWN,” “END HATE” and “NO MORE JIM CROW.”
Several police officers stood calmly in a corner of the building’s portico, keeping dry as a light rain fell. There were no demonstrators in support of the monuments.
On the bench, Moore said he and the court clerk’s office had been “inundated” with “thousands of phone calls, letters and emails” telling him how he should rule in the case. “That’s not how our system works, nor should it work,” he said, calling the correspondence a “counterproductive . . . distraction” and “worse than a waste of time.”
What becomes of the Lee and Jackson memorials will depend on how Moore interprets a pile of arcane state legislative acts and appellate court rulings dating to the gaslight age, concerning how municipal governments are allowed to operate in Virginia.
At issue in the lawsuit is a state law that bars counties and other local jurisdictions from removing public memorials to war veterans.
When it was passed by the General Assembly in 1904, the law applied only to counties, and not to cities such as Charlottesville, which is independent of any county. The law was amended in 1997 to include cities.
Friday’s hearing focused on whether the law should be applied retroactively, prohibiting cities — in this case, Charlottesville — from removing memorials that were installed before the amendment was approved in 1997. The city argues the protection law does not extend back to statues that were erected in 1921 and 1924, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans disagrees.
After the lawsuit was filed, Moore issued an injunction prohibiting the city from taking down the statues before he decides the case.
With the lawsuit pending, throngs of white nationalists, including neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, staged a “Unite the Right” rally here Aug. 12, saying the gathering was conceived as a show of support for keeping the statues in place. Chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, they were met by swarms of counterprotesters, resulting in a day of riotous chaos and violence.
During the mayhem, a 20-year-old Ohio man who had long espoused pro-Nazi views allegedly rammed his car into another vehicle intentionally on a crowded street, sending pedestrians flying. A counterprotester, Heather D. Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 other people were hurt. The suspect, James A. Fields Jr. , remains jailed here, charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.
In a related tragedy that day, two Virginia State Police officers who were monitoring the unrest from a helicopter were killed when the aircraft crashed.
In the wake of the deadly civil disturbance in Charlottesville, some Democratic lawmakers in Virginia have said they will seek to amend the monument protection law during the next legislative session to clearly give localities the authority to remove or relocate such statues.
Since the disturbance, the Lee and Jackson statues — set high on pedestals and depicting each general astride a war horse — have been shrouded in black tarps, by order of the city.