RICHMOND — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia, briefly bowed out of his duties in the state Senate on Friday in protest of a tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Fairfax (D), who normally 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.”
“I believe there are certain people in history we should honor that way in the Senate . . . and I don’t believe that he is one of them,” Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, said in an interview afterward . “I think it’s very divisive to do what was done there, particularly in light of the history that we’re now commemorating — 400 years since the first enslaved Africans came to the commonwealth of Virginia.
“And to do that in this year in particular was very hurtful to a lot of people,” Fairfax said. “It does not move us forward, it does not bring us together. And so I wanted to do my part to make it clear that I don’t condone it.”
Heaping praise on Lee is nothing unusual in the former capital of the Confederacy. For most of the United States, Friday was the last workday before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend. In Virginia, it was a state holiday: Lee-Jackson Day.
The General Assembly works through both the Lee-Jackson and MLK holidays, and elected officials from both parties have traditionally used the occasions to tip their hats to the Confederates and King alike. Comedian Stephen Colbert lampooned the Virginia Senate in 2013 for adjourning its MLK Day session in honor of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — on a motion from a Democrat, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of 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.
Fairfax, who was sworn into office a year ago and is expected to run for governor in 2021, bowed out last year when a Republican called on the Senate to adjourn for the day in honor of Jackson.
On both occasions, Fairfax’s protest was made without any remark from the dais. He called for a pause in the floor session and stepped down, taking a seat on a bench normally occupied by Senate pages. State Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), the Senate pro tempore, stepped up in his place.
In his speech Friday, Stuart tried to separate Lee from the issue of slavery, noting the general’s efforts to bring about reconciliation after the war.
“I rise to celebrate his birthday because he was a great Virginian and a great American, and not because it has anything to do with slavery,” Stuart said. “I celebrate Lee on his birthday because he was a man with the strength of his convictions and that is a rare trait, either in yesteryear or today.
“He was a man that personified integrity, honor and commitment to duty, a selfless man that devoted his entire life to the service of his country, either in battle or in teaching people to be good citizens, and a man who always did what he thought was right,” Stuart said. “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.”