RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have prohibited cities and counties from removing war memorials, including Civil War monuments that recall the South’s history of slavery.
Supporters of the bill say it would have protected the state’s historical record and legacy, warts and all, while opponents say it would have stymied local debate over how to treat painful symbols of the Confederacy and other wars.
“These discussions are often difficult and complicated,” McAuliffe (D) said in a statement. “They are unique to each community’s specific history and the specific monument or memorial being discussed. This bill effectively ends these important conversations.”
Sponsors do not have enough votes to override McAuliffe’s veto. The Republican-controlled legislature passed the bill mostly along party lines, by a margin of 82 to 16 in the House and 21 to 17 in the Senate.
The drumbeat to remove battle flags and memorials grew last summer after a white supremacist who had posed in photos with the Confederate flag, shot and killed nine worshipers at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C.
The governor of that state, Nikki Haley (R), called for the flag’s removal from the capitol grounds, and McAuliffe (D) ordered it removed from specialty license plates.
In Virginia, Del. Charles D. Poindexter (R-Franklin) said his bill simply sought to clarify an existing state law that says localities cannot “disturb or interfere with” monuments.
He said he got the idea last fall when a judge hearing a Danville case over whether the Confederate flag should be removed from the grounds of a city-owned mansion said legal protections did not apply to memorials erected before 1998.
“People come here, and they want to learn the history,” Poindexter said. “It’s all our history. It’s what it is. If we don’t look at all of our history, we’re leaving out the good, the bad and the ugly.”
As a boy, Poindexter said he attended memorials for men killed in World War II, whose bodies were brought back to the states years after the conflict ended, and developed a deep respect for soldiers who served in wartime.
But Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said personal experience gave her a very different feeling about Confederate war monuments.
Before moving to Virginia, Locke said, she had to walk by memorials to the Civil War every day while working for a state agency in Mississippi, “and that’s one of the reasons I quit, because I could not continue to do that.”
“Those things were paying homage to an institution that enslaved my ancestors,” she said. “Quite frankly, Confederate memorials were paying homage to individuals who fought a war to preserve that institution.”
She does not advocate removing relics of the past, but said there should be equal effort made to erect monuments to African American heroes and history.
Edwin Ray, of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which supported the bill, said his group is equally offended when the battle flag and other Civil War symbolism are used by hate groups.
“Taking down monuments of unpopular wars is just rewriting history, and that’s Taliban-type activity,” said Ray, an Air Force veteran. “We need to be able to remember our history as it was, not the way we’d like it to be.”
The bill prompted a tense debate on the Senate floor last week when several Republican lawmakers resisted the notion that Civil War memorials are synonymous with slavery.
“It’s about human beings who gave their last and fullest measure of devotion so that we could remain free and our principles would be the principles that we pass on to generations thereafter,” Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) said.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who is African American, took issue with that, saying not all soldiers fought to keep Americans free.
“In the Civil War, people died to keep my ancestors enslaved,” he said.