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Virginia’s only black statewide officeholder bows out of Stonewall Jackson tribute

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), bottom left, talks with House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), right, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) after delivering his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly at the Capitol on Jan. 15, 2018. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Virginia's first black statewide elected official in a generation, slipped off the dais in the state Senate on Monday to quietly protest a tribute to Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

After Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) called on the Senate to adjourn for the day in honor of Jackson, whose birthday was Sunday, Fairfax (D) moved from his spot as presiding officer to a bench normally occupied by Senate pages. Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), the Senate pro tempore, stepped up in place of Fairfax.

Fairfax's protest was so low-key that some senators missed it, or thought Fairfax had just wanted to rest his feet for a few moments.

It came about after Fairfax had been informed Friday of plans to honor Gen. Robert E. Lee that day and Jackson on Monday. Fairfax, who presides over the Senate, told Republican leaders that he would hand off the gavel to Newman rather than preside over either tribute. Newman said plans for Lee were ultimately scrapped for scheduling reasons Friday.

"There are people in Virginia history that I think it's appropriate to memorialize and remember that way, and others that I would have a difference of opinion on," he said to reporters afterward. "I just wanted to, in a very respectful but very definite way, make it clear that these were not adjournment motions that I felt comfortable presiding over, and I was not going to do it."

Fairfax described his protest as a "personal decision" based, in part, on his family history. Tucked in his jacket pocket when he was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Jan. 13 was the manumission document that freed his enslaved ancestors in 1798.

Honoring Confederate figures and other prominent Virginians is nothing unusual for either Republicans or Democrats in the former capital of the Confederacy. Comedian Stephen Colbert lampooned the Virginia Senate in 2013 for adjourning its Martin Luther King Jr. Day session in honor of Jackson — on a motion from a Democrat, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath.

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Such tributes have become more politically charged amid the push to remove monuments and rename schools and roads honoring Confederate leaders. The issue has become even more fraught since white supremacists, opposed to plans to remove a Lee statue from a Charlottesville park, staged a rally in August that devolved into violent clashes that left one counterprotester dead.

Hanger acknowledged on the Senate floor that the Charlottesville tragedy cast a pall over what had been a routine annual tribute.

"I've done this numerous times before, and I expect that someone on this floor has repeated this tradition here in the General Assembly every year — perhaps 155 times over 155 years since Jackson was killed in battle and lay in state here behind me down the hall in this Capitol," said Hanger, whose great-great grandfather served with Jackson in the Stonewall Brigade.

"And yet today is different," he said. "We all know it and we struggle to hide our discomfort — discomfort with people who have given disgusting voice and vile action to the racism and bigotry that seemingly respectable people have managed to hide in their hearts.

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"Jackson was not a perfect man," Hanger said. "As a devout Christian, he had conflicting views on slavery. But there's no questioning the fact that in his short life, he became one of the most respected military leaders the modern world has known."