The Virginia state Supreme Court overturned a district court ruling Thursday that barred the city of Charlottesville from removing two Confederate statues in the city, including one memorializing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The city can now proceed with the removal of the Lee statue, as well as another nearby memorial to Gen. Stonewall Jackson, both of which the City Council voted to remove in 2017. The prospect of the Lee statue being taken down prompted a group of local residents to sue, halting the removal as the case made its way through the state court system.
The case against the statues’ removal was technical: a question of which level of state government had jurisdiction over the memorials and could therefore authorize their removal. The ideological push to keep Confederate iconography in place, however, came from far-right groups that used the prospect of removing the Lee statue as a white nationalist rallying cry to galvanize the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017. The rally was reminiscent of Klan rallies and served as a wake-up call for many on the lingering influence of white nationalist groups. It also sparked a national reckoning on the continued presence and meaning of Confederate monuments throughout the South.
A court injunction in 2017 first halted Charlottesville’s planned removal of the statues. The group of residents that filed suit claimed the city didn’t have the authority to remove the monuments because a 1997 state law barred localities from taking down Confederate war memorials. A district court agreed in 2019, but the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the 1997 law only applied to memorials erected after that point, and did not apply retroactively, thereby granting the city authority to remove the Lee statue, which was erected in 1924, and the Jackson statue, which dates back to 1921.