Erin L. Thompson is a professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the author of “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments.”
On Dec. 22, Charlottesville and the Jefferson School were sued by a group of plaintiffs who want them to repair and restore the monument to its original condition. The plaintiffs, who operate Confederate heritage sites, are also seeking damages of up to $3 million to compensate them for their “lost opportunity of acquiring [a] historic monument.”
This is not the first time Confederate heritage organizations have gone to court to derail attempts to modify the Charlottesville statue. In February 2017, after months of often contentious debate, the city council approved the statue’s removal to a less prominent location. But an organization formed to protect the statue, called the Monument Fund, along with the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and several other plaintiffs, immediately sued.
A judge issued a preliminary injunction, meaning the statue had to stay in place while the lawsuit made its way through the courts. It was still there in August 2017, when white nationalists’ “Unite the Right” rally, inspired in part by the Lee statue’s planned relocation, turned deadly. James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car through a group of people, killing an anti-racism activist named Heather D. Heyer and injuring 35 others.
Charlottesville’s mayor ordered the Lee monument shrouded in black tarps to mourn Heyer’s death. After the Monument Fund complained that the public’s right to view the statue was obstructed by “giant trash bags,” the judge ordered the covers removed.
Even after July 2020, when a new state law allowed Virginia municipalities to make their own decisions about their monuments, the lawsuit kept Charlottesville’s statue on its pedestal. It took an April 2021 ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court before Charlottesville finally had the go-ahead to remove the statue.
Such lawsuits are not limited to memorials to the Confederacy. Others have been filed seeking reinstallation of two statues taken down in 2020 — one honoring Christopher Columbus and another Frank Rizzo, a former mayor of Philadelphia who stridently resisted school desegregation. And two of the descendants of John C. Calhoun, defender of slavery and U.S. vice president from 1825 to 1833, sued the city of Charleston, S.C., to prevent it from carrying out its plans to lend the statue of Calhoun it removed from a downtown square in 2020 to a Los Angeles contemporary art museum for an exhibition on controversial monuments.
If Charlottesville’s Lee does hit the melting pot, it will be the first of the recently removed Confederate monuments to be irrevocably destroyed. The others have been relocated or are in storage pending decisions about their fate. Lawsuits such as the one just filed in Charlottesville will be a crucial factor in these decisions.
You might see these suits as doomed rearguard actions. But even if Lee is melted down and Calhoun is trucked to Los Angeles, these suits are a warning to others making decisions about what to do with removed monuments. How many officials will agree simply to give a monument to a Confederate heritage group rather than risk a lawsuit brought on by following the wishes of a broader but less litigious public? How many organizations seeking to transform a dishonored memorial will be deterred by the struggles of the Jefferson School to defend itself from a multimillion-dollar damage claim?
Events such as the “Unite the Right” rally might make you think that fights about monuments are carried out by crowds of protesters battling to pull down or prop up statues. But the real battle for control over American monuments is fought politely, out of public view, in courtrooms and municipal offices.
If the Lee statue cannot be repaired, the current plaintiffs want its bronze to be cast into “Civil War cannon” for placement on historic battlefield. Rather than wanting to melt our swords into plowshares and finally reconcile the divides of the Civil War, they propose a different bellicose image. Too many of our monuments were put up without any public input, by people wealthy enough to pay for them. We should not let the process of their transformation be controlled by a similarly small group of plaintiffs with deep enough pockets to pay for legal life support for the Lost Cause.