Fairfax (D), a descendant of slaves and only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia history, invited Lee and Christian to the Senate session on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which this year happened to fall on Jackson’s birthday.
“As a Robert Lee, I want to be a different footnote in history,” Lee said in an interview afterward. “And I want to stand with Justin Fairfax . . . and say that honoring the racist, white-supremacist past that we hold with statues, with mentions . . . on the floor of the commonwealth’s legislature is a no-go for me and a no-go for so many people of goodwill in the South.”
He and Christian were recognized in the Senate gallery but made no remarks to the body.
On the same day, lawmakers easily approved tax incentives for Amazon to build a headquarters in Arlington but narrowly rejected a proposal for a $15 minimum wage. Both votes were expected. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
On Friday, Fairfax, who presides over Richmond’s upper chamber, stepped off the dais and let a Republican wield the gavel while Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George) marked Lee’s 212th birthday with praise for “a great Virginian and a great American.”
Fairfax, who was sworn into office a year ago and is expected to run for governor in 2021, bowed out of last year’s tributes, as well.
In his speech last week, Stuart, whose district includes Lee’s birthplace, tried to separate Lee from the issue of slavery, noting the general’s efforts to bring about reconciliation after the Civil War.
“There were few people after the Civil War who did what Lee did to heal the wounds of this country and to try to reunite this country after that horrible war,” Stuart said.
On Monday, Stuart said he would quit doing the annual tribute if people found it offensive. He said he had checked in with Fairfax last year on the issue.
“I went to him afterwards and asked, ‘Did I offend you?,’ and he said: ‘No, you didn’t offend me. I did what I thought was right, but I didn’t find it offensive,’ ” Stuart said. “I’m not going to do something that offends people. But I wish people would come to me and say, ‘We would rather you not do this because I find it offensive.’ ”
Fairfax wasn’t immediately available for comment Monday afternoon. But his office confirmed that he and Stuart had a “cordial exchange” on the topic last year.
In an interview, Christian said he agrees with the notion that the Confederate generals were complex people, but he still thinks modern-day tributes to them are misguided.
“I think he certainly did some honorable things, and I’m happy to celebrate some of those things — for instance, teaching enslaved people how to read during Sunday school, which at the time would have been illegal,” Christian said, referring to Jackson. “But today that’s not what they’re going to celebrate. They’re going to celebrate him for fighting the Civil War and fighting to maintain slavery.”
Fairfax, whose great-great-great-grandfather Simon Fairfax was enslaved in Virginia, said it was notable that the descendants of Confederate generals opposed the tributes.
“To have the three of us — the great-great-great-grandson of Simon Fairfax, Robert E. Lee’s descendant and Stonewall Jackson’s descendant — stand in solidarity together and say we need to take this commonwealth, this country, in a different, more positive, more uplifting course, I think sends a signal of hope and light out into the world,” Fairfax said.
Praising Gens. Lee and Jackson is nothing new in Virginia’s General Assembly. Legislators from both parties have traditionally noted their birthdays with short floor speeches. Comedian Stephen Colbert lampooned the Virginia Senate in 2013 for adjourning its MLK Day session in honor of Jackson — on a motion from a Democrat, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath).
Such tributes have become more politically fraught in recent years amid the push to remove monuments and rename schools and roads honoring Confederate leaders.
“The prophetic witness of standing with people in solidarity is something my family espouses now,” Lee said. “We may not have espoused that in the 19th century, but by God, we’re going to make it right now.”
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.