The city of Richmond, Virginia, took down a statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson on Wednesday as part of a broader push to remove roughly a dozen Confederate-era monuments on city land. Hundreds came out to watch the removal of the statue memorializing the Confederate general, a move steeped in symbolism given Richmond’s role as the capital of the Confederacy. The political makeup of the state has changed dramatically over the past two decades, as has, more recently, the nature of the national conversation over the appropriateness of statues memorializing a dark, brutally repressive period of American history. The Jackson statue was one of numerous city monuments to the Confederacy created many decades after the Civil War aiming to rehabilitate the South’s image, recasting it as a defender of states’ rights rather than a propagator of slavery. When the Jackson statue was finally on the ground, the crowd cheered, and bells rang out from a nearby church.
A new law in Virginia paving the way for cities and counties in the state to take action to remove Confederate memorials went into effect Wednesday, but the law requires a period of public comments before municipalities can carry out removals. The legislation grew out of an effort last month by protesters to topple a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, which was partially taken down during demonstrations. Another statue on the city’s Monument Avenue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has been ordered taken down by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, but the order to remove the statue, which is on state land, is being challenged in court.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of statues on city property, bypassing the new state law’s timetable by extending emergency powers granted by the governor. The mayor framed the expedited removals as in the interest of public safety that is threatened by demonstrators gathering and potentially spreading the coronavirus, as well as injuring themselves or others toppling the monuments themselves. The 39-year-old Democratic mayor, “bucking advice from the city attorney and relying on emergency powers, dispatched a crew to take down the statue after the City Council delayed a vote on removing it along with three others owned by the city along the avenue,” the Washington Post reports. “In addition to Jackson and Davis, the other two city-owned statues on the avenue honor Confederate figures J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury.”
“The Berlin Wall fell, but also the system fell with it,” the mayor said of the removals. “Now for us, as elected leaders, alongside our community, it’s our job to rip out the systemic racism that is found in everything we do—from government, to health care, to the criminal justice system.” The Virginia state Republican Party dutifully pushed back on the move, calling it a “stunt” that would fan “the flames of the violent and chaotic protests.”