Actually Getting Rid of Robert E. Lee Can Be More Difficult Than You’d Think

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So, now what happens to the General Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va.? The answer, it turns out, is not so straightforward.

The Charlottesville City Council has voted to remove the Lee monument. But Virginia, like at least a half-dozen other former members of the Confederacy, has a statute on its books that arguably blocks municipalities from taking down war memorials, including tributes to Lee and his fellow secessionists. These laws, some of them of quite recent vintage, could hinder memorial-removal efforts throughout the South.

More than 700 Confederate statues and monuments decorate parks and courthouse plazas, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies hate groups. The nationwide debate over the fate of these memorials intensified in 2015 after an avowed white supremacist named Dylann Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. On August 12, violence erupted in Charlottesville during a protest organized by white nationalists and neo-Nazis defending the Lee statue. A car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 other people.

The Virginia statute, which specifically applies to tributes to combatants in what the law calls “the War Between the States,” makes it illegal for local authorities “to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.” Invoking the statute, the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans went to court to challenge a 3-2 vote in April by the Charlottesville City Council to remove the Lee statue from a city park and sell it.

A state court hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for August 30. Lawyers for the City Council are expected to argue that the Lee statue is a memorial for an individual, not for the Confederacy or its troops generally—and therefore the state law shouldn’t apply. But that seems like a pretty lame attempt at escaping the obvious point of the statute. A far more promising route would be for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to lead a political push to repeal the state law and free up municipalities to do what they wish with their memorials.

States with statutes similar to Virginia’s include Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

In Nashville, Democratic politicians have sought since 2015 to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from its place of honor at the state capitol. A Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, Forrest was involved in a massacre of black soldiers in 1864. But the effort to expunge his image has been slowed by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a law passed in 2016.

In Birmingham, Ala., Democratic Mayor William Bell last week directed city officials to put up a black plywood barrier that blocked the base of a Confederate obelisk that has stood in a city park since 1905. Bell said the city was trying to balance objections to the monument against a state law enacted in May that prohibits removal of historical monuments, including those devoted to the Confederacy. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, promptly sued Birmingham and Mayor Bell, citing the new statute. “The city of Birmingham does not have the right to violate the law and leaves my office with no choice but to file suit,” Marshall said in a statement.

Last week in Durham, N.C., left-leaning demonstrators took matters into their own hands, pulling down a statue of a Confederate soldier. Eight people face criminal charges in the incident. North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper wrote an impassioned online opinion piece, saying: “We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down.” But Cooper expressed trepidation about liberal protesters injuring themselves and the possibility of armed right-wing groups showing up as they did in Charlottesville. The first step, Cooper wrote, is for the state’s legislature to repeal “a 2015 law that prevents removal or relocation of monuments. Cities, counties, and the state must have the authority and opportunity to make these decisions.”