The legal maneuvering over the City of Charlottesville’s efforts to take down statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson appears to have ended with a Virginia Supreme Court decision giving the city a greenlight to proceed. A unanimous high court reversed a trial court’s ruling that the statues were protected by a 1997 law protecting historical monuments. The Lee statue was erected in 1924, and the Jackson statue in 1921, and the state law in question should not be read as offering retroactive protections, reasoned the Supreme Court.
The Lee statue in particular was the focal point of the notorious Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2017, during which counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed. But rallies to defend both statues had been occurring off and on earlier that year as the city moved toward removing them.
After the deadly August rally (punctuated by then-president Donald Trump’s “very fine people, on both sides” comment), the city of Charlottesville hung black tarps over the Lee and Jackson statues. The same trial-court ruling that prevented the removal of the statues also ordered removal of the tarps. They may now return before the graven images themselves are taken away. Since the decision involves an interpretation of state law, it’s unlikely there will be any further recourse for the pro-statue litigants, whose group includes members of a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
There is currently a second and completely separate statue-related legal case pending before the Virginia Supreme Court, which stems from efforts by Governor Ralph Northam to remove a much larger Lee statue from state property in Richmond. While today’s decision did not have any direct impact on that case, it’s not a good sign for fans of the Lost Cause. As in similar cases, the removal of the statues does no damage to the history of the Confederacy, which lives on in museums and books. But it’s a true blow to neo-Confederacy, the effort to vindicate white supremacy through retroactive (e.g., in 1921 and 1924) exaltation of the battle to defend slavery and then to thwart Reconstruction and build the Jim Crow apartheid system.