Virginia lawmakers approve Confederate statue removal bills

RICHMOND, Va. — Local Virginia governments would have the power to remove Confederate monuments in their public spaces under legislation approved Tuesday by state lawmakers.

In the two legislative sessions that followed a violent 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Republican lawmakers defeated bills that would have rewritten an existing war memorials law to allow the controversial statues to be removed. But the GOP in November lost control of the General Assembly, giving Democrats an opportunity to take another look at the statues that critics say distastefully glorify Virginia’s history as a slaveholding state.

On Tuesday, largely along party lines, the Democrat-led House and Senate passed measures that would give cities and counties the autonomy to “remove, relocate, contextualize, cover or alter” the monuments in their public spaces.

Del. Delores McQuinn, a Democrat from Richmond who sponsored the House bill, said it would let local communities decide for themselves “how they want to memorialize history, whether it’s right in your face or they want to memorialize it in another way.”

Charlottesville’s proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee helped spark the infamous 2017 gathering of white nationalists that descended into chaos. A white supremacist plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing a woman.

Many places around the country quickly responded by taking Confederate monuments down, but Virginia localities were hamstrung by the state law that prevents cities and counties from removing, “damaging or defacing” them.

Charlottesville, which later also sought to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, has been fighting the issue in court.

Charlottesville officials are encouraged by the legislation’s progress, city spokesman Brian Wheeler said in an email. If it is signed into law, the city will meet any procedural steps it requires to remove the Lee and Jackson statues, he said.

The measures’ opponents, who compare removing Confederate monuments to erasing history, have raised concerns that the legislation could lead to a push to take down memorials to other controversial conflicts, such as the Vietnam War.

“I do not believe this will end well,” said Republican Del. Charles Poindexter, who added that the bill sent a “tough message” to every veteran or dead veteran’s family.

Del. Jay Jones, who is black, said in a speech Monday that many of the monuments were erected in the 20th century, decades after the Civil War had ended and during the “throes of Jim Crow.” He said people in Norfolk, his district, overwhelmingly want a “Johnny Reb” statue removed from a downtown square.

“Every time I drive past it — which is every day to get to my law office — my heart breaks a little bit,” he said.

Each chamber advanced different versions of the legislation. The House and Senate may next conform the language of the bills to match or advance them to a conference committee that will work out the differences.

The Senate’s bill imposes several hurdles not included in the House version that a local government must take before removing a monument. Under the measure, local leaders must first pass a resolution stating its intention to remove the monument, then request a report from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources with background about the person depicted and the circumstances under which the monument was established.

The locality would then have to make that report public and then hold a public hearing before it could vote. A decision to remove a monument would require a 2/3 vote or could be sent to voters for a referendum.

Under both the House and Senate bills, the locality would have to offer the monument to a “museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield” for a period of 30 days, though both measures say the local government has the “sole authority” to determine its final disposition.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said at the start of this year’s legislative session that he supports lifting the existing prohibition on the removal of Confederate war memorials. He also said he backs a measure advancing through both chambers that lays out a process for removing a statue of Lee that Virginia contributed to the U.S. Capitol grounds.

That legislation, which establishes a commission that would recommend a prominent Virginian who could replace Lee as one of the state’s two contributions in the National Statuary Hall Collection, passed the Senate on Monday and the House on Tuesday.

Other city governments that have signalled their intent to remove a Confederate monument include Alexandria, Portsmouth and Norfolk, which voted to move the “Johnny Reb” statue to a cemetery and has also sued over the law. In Richmond, where a commission convened by the mayor recommended removing one of five Confederate statues along the city’s famed Monument Avenue, the City Council passed a resolution last month asking the General Assembly for local control.

One of those five statues, a soaring tribute to Lee, is state property. Northam has said there’s an “ongoing discussion” about that statue’s future, though his office has declined to answer further questions.

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