Let’s hand it to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. He may not have the longest political resume in state politics, but he has a talent for getting seasoned colleagues to make embarrassing unforced errors.
His most recent success: Stepping down from the Senate dais (for the second year in a row) while a Republican lawmaker, Sen. Richard Stuart, praised Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and asked the Senate to adjourn in honor of Lee’s birthday.
Fairfax’s protest was quiet and dignified. But his Twitter message was a hard jab at the Senate’s habit of conferring an honor without considering the context:
History repeats itself. I will be stepping off the dais today in protest of the Virginia Senate honoring Robert E. Lee. I’ll be thinking of this June 5, 1798 manumission document that freed my great-great-great grandfather Simon Fairfax from slavery in Virginia.
Fairfax gets the headlines and the pictures that go with them. In purely political terms, Fairfax wins, and he wins big.
One might think his Senate colleagues, particularly the Republicans who narrowly control the chamber, would heed the lesson and drop the Confederate mummery.
But that appears to be asking far too much.
The Senate agreed to adjourn in honor of Stonewall Jackson in 2018, despite the deadly Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 that grew out of an alt-right protest over a proposal to remove a statue of Lee from a city park.
Sen. Emmett Hanger acknowledged those events overshadowed his motion to adjourn. Yet the Senate did so anyway.
If tiki-torch bearing white supremacists can’t convince Senate grandees to think about their actions, then there was no hope they would take a moment to reflect this year, either.
Though one might have thought, with a bipartisan news conference calling for a year of “earnest racial reconciliation and healing,” intended to “shine a light on the state’s history of racial oppression,” they might have held up for just a second.
What will it take, then, to change legislators’ hearts and minds and, ultimately, their actions?
Voters could send the more incurious members packing in November. But that requires voters not to forget what happened last week and, even more, to rank the Senate’s actions ahead of more pressing issues such as the economy or education.
It’s not going to happen.
One might hope legislators would take it upon themselves to learn more about the men they insist on honoring each January. They could begin with putting aside their “marble man” view of Lee.
As historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor suggested:
…all of us who admire Lee [must] embrace him for the complex, contradictory, fabulous but flawed person that he was. If we try to make him more, we actually insult him. Every time someone maintains that he never used the word “enemy,” or that he never lost a battle (he just ran out of ammunition), or that he was opposed to slavery -- any time we make these mistaken assertions, we are implying that the person he really was, is not good enough.
I would say simply: If you want to do Robert E. Lee justice, embrace the fine qualities that he truly has to offer us -- and they are considerable -- but also recognize his limitations and the injustices perpetrated at his hands. Then lend him your respect. It is the greatest compliment you can give him.
Pryor’s essay ought to be required reading in Capitol Square. Were it to become so, then there’s a chance, however slim, the Senate might have a moment’s hesitation before adjourning again in Lee’s honor.
A less blinkered generation of politicians, including Fairfax, inevitably will bring the practice to an end.
And then, perhaps they might take up Jim Hoeft’s suggestion from a few years ago to do away with Lee-Jackson Day entirely, and replace it with a Virginia Heritage Day.