The Slatest

Virginia Legislature Passes Bill to End Day Honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson

The statue of Robert E Lee on horseback is seen on a bright, sunny day.
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Emancipation Park near downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. Logan Cyrus/Getty Images

The Virginia House of Delegates voted on Thursday to approve a bill that would eliminate Lee-Jackson Day and replace it with an Election Day holiday. It is now almost guaranteed to be signed into law.

The bill, which came soon after Democrats took majority control of the House, marks a major blow against supporters of Confederate memorialization, who were already losing ground in the debate over monuments in public spaces. In recent years, cities such as Charlottesville and Richmond have elected to ignore the state celebration. And Gov. Ralph Northam, in part to atone for the blackface scandal that nearly forced him out of office last year, has vocally committed to fighting against symbols of racism with the rest of his term. Already he and the legislature have set their sights on a number of bills that would shift funding away from honoring Confederate figures and toward recognizing black activists and heroes in the state’s history.

Lee-Jackson Day, honoring the Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, has been celebrated in Virginia for more than 100 years. Previously, it had been celebrated on the same day as Martin Luther King Day (Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate Robert E. Lee Day on the federally mandated MLK holiday). But in 2000, the state voted to move it to the Friday before MLK Day, in what was seen by some as a very small step toward progress.

According to local media, the bill is virtually identical to one passed by the state’s Senate last month. The two chambers will now have to agree upon a final version before Northam can sign it into law.

Election Day is already an official holiday in several states, including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, and New York. Proponents of the idea have argued that giving state employees the day off would boost voter turnout. Critics have noted that many of those who already struggle the most to vote, such as low-wage shift workers, will not benefit. Because voter turnout is a number affected by multiple and often unmeasurable factors, it’s hard to know if any of the state election holidays have had any real effect and whether Virginia’s proposed Election Day will increase turnout significantly.

The national reckoning over symbols of the Confederacy began in 2015, when a white supremacist killed nine black worshipers in a church in South Carolina. In response, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag flying at its statehouse. But as opponents of Confederate symbols grew in numbers, their supporters became more vocal and found allies with other far-right groups. In 2017, the arguments came to a head in a violent clash between far-right hate groups—including neo-Confederates—and counterprotesters in Charlottesville. The Unite the Right rally ended tragically when an avowed neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd, killing the counterprotester Heather Heyer.

Since that weekend, the city has been fighting to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee that sparked the protests in the first place. After the rally, the city draped the statue with a black shroud, and the City Council voted to remove the statue. Opponents sued to stop the city, claiming it violated state code, and a judge has since issued an injunction against the shrouding and the statue’s removal, ruling that the statues did not send a racially discriminatory message. The city has said it will appeal the decision.

While Virginia and North Carolina (the home of Silent Sam) have experienced active debates over these symbols, other states have made less progress on shifting the conversation. A number of Southern states celebrate official and unofficial Confederate Memorial Days and Robert E. Lee Days (or, in the case of Alabama and Mississippi, Robert E. Lee/MLK Day). Alabama has a bonus holiday just for Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Tennessee recently declared a Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, honoring a slave trader and early KKK figure.

Virginia towns have celebrated Lee-Jackson Day with wreath-laying ceremonies, a Civil War parade, a ball, and the placing of Confederate flags in cemeteries, according to NBC12. The Virginia General Assembly has historically also held floor speeches to mark it.

Now that the state’s legislative and executive branches are controlled by Democrats, it seems possible that the Confederate statues in the state Capitol and the statue of Lee representing Virginia in the National Statuary Hall may be the next targets. Some Democrats have also voiced support for the removal of a statue of Democrat Sen. Harry Byrd, a giant of Virginia politics who engineered the state’s opposition to desegregation.

Virginia has more Confederate monuments than any other state. Defenders of Confederate monuments have argued that the statues are meant to honor the state’s history. In Virginia, the birthplace of both Lee and Jackson, that battle has often felt more deeply entwined in the state’s self-image than in other Southern states. But most of the monuments dedicated to Confederate generals and soldiers were erected by propagandists pushing a “Lost Cause” mythology meant to paper over the Confederacy’s overt motive of preserving slavery and present its leaders as driven by honor and states’ rights—an ideology they had not possessed at the time.

As historians pointed out, these statues were for the most part erected during the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later during the civil rights movement, indicating their placement was meant to send a message during times of racial tensions rather than to honor the dead.

Some defenders of the Lee-Jackson Day have also argued that the generals were men motivated by a love of their homeland rather than racism. But as some have noted, Lee was a cruel slave master and during the war, led an army that conducted “slave hunts” and commanded the massacre of black Union soldiers who attempted to surrender. Jackson, whose reputation has fared better than Lee’s, owned slaves and went to war to uphold the institution of human bondage.