The removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond today illustrates how fast change can come even when it takes so long. On the one hand, Lee, who led a traitorous rebellion, remains a hero in the eyes of too many people more than 160 years after the end of the Civil War. On the other hand, a decade ago, few people would have predicted today’s events.
Sentiment for removing the monument shifted quickly in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Protestors marred the base of the monument and Governor Ralph Northam promised to remove it last year. Residents in the neighborhood sued to keep it in place, but last week, the state Supreme Court sided with the Governor. Today, it’s gone.
I spent some time in Richmond back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The connection to the Confederacy was inescapable. The statue of Lee sat on Monument Avenue, a main thoroughfare punctuated by statues of Confederate leaders, many on horseback. If the horse was reared up on two legs, then the general depicted had died in battle. The street left no doubt that soldiers of the Confederacy were being honored, not just remembered.
About 18 years ago, I visited the White House of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond with my daughter. We encountered a man dressed as Confederate Cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart and the general’s namesake was listed as a member of the Board of Trustees. Pride in the Confederacy was still a large part of the city’s identity as late as the 21st century.
Then, the tide shifted. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the wake of too many young African Americans dying at the hands of vigilantes and law enforcement, the demand for the removal of the monuments took shape. The rally of White Supremacists at Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, gave the cause more legitimacy and public sympathy. The perpetuation of the Myth of the Lost Cause was a rallying point for White nationalists emboldened by Donald Trump. Before Trump left the White House, all of the Confederates were gone from Monument Avenue except Lee.
Today, the capitol of the Confederacy fell for a second time. This time, the removal of Robert E. Lee symbolizes the end of the Lost Cause in Richmond, if not greater Virginia, the state where the most consequential battles of the Civil War were fought. The state is finally giving up its romanticized view of history, regardless of how reluctantly, and coming to terms with reality of its past. It can begin to tell a more honest story and it’s got a good start. The last statue standing on Monument Avenue is Arthur Ashe, the African American tennis great who broke down racial barriers. Ashe should truly be a point of pride.