How Right-Wingers in High Places Are Keeping Racist Statues Standing
Perhaps nothing in decades has inflamed neo-Confederates more than two recent events: a vote last year by the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the election of a vocal sympathizer, Donald Trump, to the White House. Emboldened by the latter and triggered by the former, pro-Confederates last August staged Unite the Right, the largest gathering of white supremacists in recent American history, which ended with the brutal slaying of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer, the vicious beating of DeAndre Harris and the injury of 35 others. The MAGA racists and alt-right mobs who wreaked murderous havoc on Charlottesville last summer are unquestionably the most visible and violent members of the neo-Confederacy, but they’re ultimately just the rearguard of the movement.
In many ways Charlottesville is a case study in how neo-Confederates of all stripes—from the thugs of Unite the Right to their more genteel allies in statehouses and in courtrooms—are using every available method toward their shared goal of protecting and safeguarding tangible odes to white supremacy. “I talk about white supremacy as having both a condensation moment and a dissipation moment,” says Jalane Schmidt, a religion professor at the University of Virginia and Black Lives Matter activist. “The condensation moment, it’s visibly apparent. You can see a monument sitting in your park. It dominates the space. You can see the fascists marching through your streets. It dominates the space. But the dissipation moment, it’s like an airborne toxin. It poisons the body, in this case the body politic. With the case of white supremacy, this dissipation moment is encoded into policy. That is also white supremacy. It is also deadly, but it’s so normalized for so many people, for white people especially, that they don’t see it as something dangerous. Why does it take the death of a white woman for white people to see that white supremacy is dangerous?”
Wreaking deadly terror in the streets is one historically successful way to literally beat back threats to white supremacy; advancing neo-Confederate agendas via civil institutions is another.
Roughly a month after the City Council’s 3-2 vote in February 2017 to take down the Lee monument, a collective of 13 Charlottesville monument preservationists—a quaint way of saying neo-Confederates—filed a not unexpected lawsuit that has effectively kept the Lee statue and a nearby bronze sculpture of fellow Confederate Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson standing. Complainants in the case include four prominent local lawyers, among them the former chairman of Charlottesville’s Republican Party, who was recently appointed the public defender for James Alex Fields Jr., the self-described Nazi who killed Heyer with his car. The Monument Fund, a nonprofit formed for the sole purpose of protecting Charlottesville’s homage to the most famous commander of the army that fought to defend black chattel slavery, is also a plaintiff. Described to me by one anti-racist activist as “an upscale crowd of seersucker suit and pearl-wearing preservationists,” the organization receives donations from supporters around the country and perhaps beyond. Attorney and Executive Director Jock Yellott has demurred when asked about fundraising totals, saying it would be like “telling the opposition how many cannonballs you have.” The IRS lists the group’s reported 2017 revenue as $118,907.
The neo-Confederates behind the Charlottesville lawsuit, who are currently pressing for civil remedies through the courts, are also affiliated with those engaging in uncivil violence in the streets. The list of plaintiffs includes the Virginia Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the state division of the national “heritage society” that has erected more than 30 Confederate monuments around the country since the year 2000. Members took pains to distance the group from the racists of Unite the Right, issuing a message after the event stating that “those who show up with torches and making inflammatory statements are in no way connected with or indorsed [sic] by the SCV.” Enter twin brothers George and Gregory Randall, highly visible members of Virginia’s neo-Confederate movement. Rewire notes that “in a 2015 Facebook post, Gregory Randall indicated he was a member of the League of the South,” described by the SPLC as a “neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by ‘European Americans.’” His brother George Randall has been photographed wearing League of the South garb and attended Unite the Right in the company of no other than David Duke. A local anti-racist activist shared with me a September 2017 email in which B. Frank Earnest, a prominent officer in the Virginia SCV and one of the individual plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, confirmed that George Randall was “an active member” of the Virginia group. And the Randalls may not be outliers. Harold Ray Crews, the white supremacist who weaponized the criminal justice system’s anti-black bias to have Unite the Right beating victim DeAndre Harris arrested, has publicly self-identified as a member of both the North Carolina chapter of SCV and chairman of the North Carolina League of the South.
At the heart of the pro-Confederates’ case is the argument that removing the Lee and Jackson statues violates a Virginia law prohibiting the removal of war monuments and memorials. When first entered into the law books in 1904, the legislation stated Virginia Confederate war memorials could not be removed by counties, a dictum that was changed to include all localities—including independent cities such as Charlottesville—in 1997. Unsurprisingly, the plaintiffs’ complaint leans into language of the Lost Cause, calling the statues monuments to the “War between the States,” a euphemistic phrasing favored by neo-Confederates because it downplays the South’s treason against the Union. Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore’s statements from the bench, more troublingly, also display an open affinity for the same ahistorical telling of history. In a transcript from a May 2 hearing, Moore describes Lee as a “hero of the Confederacy,” and states that the “goal of the Confederacy was the preservation of the right to determine your own way of life,” which he then offhandedly notes, “included slavery.” (A footnote indicating the goal of the Confederacy was definitely not “the right to determine your own way of life” if you happened to be black at the time.) In the same breath, Moore delivered a soliloquy of textbook neo-Confederate mythology that suggests he’s both a jurist and a time-traveling mind reader:
“[T]here are just as many who think it’s an outrage to remove the statue that honors a man who was looked up to and revered by so many, and made a difficult choice to side with his state against that of the Union of States, and a more difficult decision to surrender his troops at the end of the war instead of continuing to fight. And he was an example to all, almost without dispute, of grace and submission in defeat.”
“That’s classic Lost Cause mythology, this idea that poor General Lee was in the midst of this very difficult situation and merely did what he thought was the right thing and sacrificed on behalf of the state of Virginia, and that we need to respect him for that,” says University of Virginia law librarian Ben Doherty, who has attended several hearings during which Moore lapsed into wistful bouts of Lost Cause sentimentality. “When you sit in the courtroom and watch these hearings, it’s almost incredible how much it feels like you’ve been brought back to the 1950s or even the 1920s in the way he talks about this stuff, and the things that he says about General Lee. It’s like, where am I? Is this a movie? You’ve got a judge who’s buying into Lost Cause mythology… and the judge should be conflicted out because he clearly has sympathies towards one of the sides in the case. It’s unbelievable.”
Attorneys for the city argue the amended legislation doesn’t apply to monuments erected before the law was altered, and thus has no bearing on two Confederate monuments dedicated in the early 1920s. The original turn-of-the-century version of the law was drafted by Virginia politicians keen to reverse African-American political progress—having recently stripped black citizens of the right to vote and in the lead-up to sanctioning racial segregation—who also wrote and endorsed Jim Crow laws that Confederate monuments were erected to symbolically reinforce. The expansion of Virginia’s heritage law as recently as 1998, when challenges to Confederate symbols were starting to gain volume, is itself an example of neo-Confederate lawmaking at work. As Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams notes, “state code on Confederate monuments” has been amended multiple times over the years, “[b]ut the protection of Confederate statues—which encountered resistance from day one—was the raison d’être.”
The strife surrounding Virginia’s Confederate monuments could have been settled by the General Assembly at the start of this year. In the aftermath of Unite the Right, Virginia’s Democratic legislators proposed at least four bills that would lift prohibitions on the removal or relocation of war monuments by localities, clarifying Virginia’s heritage law and clearing a path to take down what have proved to be imminent threats to public safety. All of those bills died rapid-fire deaths in Republican-dominated subcommittees before even hitting the statehouse floor. Neo-Confederate allies in the legislature such as Delegate Charles D. Poindexter regurgitated faux-earnest GOP lines about Confederate statue removal warping space and time to “change our history,” as if the monuments weren’t erected to do just that, and effectively continue to do so as long as they stand. Steve Heretick, the only Democratic member of the House to vote for the bill’s death, defied even the most superficial reading of history in imagining the monuments as the result of a consensus among Charlottesville citizens.
“There was community conversation when the statuary was erected,” Heretick told the Washington Times, “so to some extent I think there needs to be community involvement in discussion to move them or to change them. It is a tough call for me.”
This, too, is Lost Cause mythology stated so casually and confidently that it almost manages to masquerade as truth. The Jackson statue was dedicated in 1921, the same year Charlottesville’s local paper, The Daily Progress, announced that a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had just “been organized in this city.” A few weeks later, the outlet reported on Klan recruitment signs posted around town, stating, “if you are a man, we respect you. If you are 100 percent American we want you. Only 100 percent white Americans” should apply for membership. In 1924, the year the Jackson statue went up, Virginia’s legislature passed “The Racial Integrity Act,” a law designed to prevent interracial relationships and race-mixing. Any sexagenarian black resident of 1920s Charlottesville had been born into slavery, and younger African-American denizens were just a generation or two removed from the institution. These folks were never invited to weigh in on whether the city should dedicate statuary to those who fought to ensure they remained enslaved. Heretick is either willingly obtuse in suggesting that “there was community conversation” when the Lee and Jackson statues were erected, or he, like white denizens of Charlottesville of the 1920s, doesn’t consider black folks part of the Charlottesville community. At the very least, those who occupy the openly racist and violent wing of the neo-Confederacy acknowledge these statues for exactly what they are: tangible manifestations of white supremacy and power. Virginia’s lawmakers, regardless of party, who aid in historical whitewashing essentially bolster neo-Confederate efforts to keep up monuments that Unite the Right proved are literal threats to public safety.
Whatever the outcome of the Charlottesville lawsuit, the case will likely head to Virginia’s Supreme Court on appeal. But for opponents of the neo-Confederates’ goals, things don’t look great from here. Judge Moore has consistently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs as the case heads toward trial in October. In February, the court ordered that tarps covering the statues during a period of collective mourning over Heyer’s death and the horrific violence of Unite the Right be removed. In his decision, Moore wrote that members of the general public suffered “irreparable harm” by “not being able to view or enjoy” monuments to those who put their lives on the line to protect black enslavement. More recently, Moore issued a ruling that City Council members who voted for removal of the Lee and Jackson statues may be personally liable for damages and legal fees if the court ultimately rules in favor of the neo-Confederate plaintiffs. At an October 4 hearing, in a display of Trumpian bothsideism, Moore suggested the tragedy that defined Unite the Right could have been avoided if only anti-racist protesters had allowed neo-Nazis and white nationalists to storm the streets of Charlottesville unchallenged. “No one had to show up to confront those people,” the judge said. “The statues didn’t cause anything. People did.”
“It was really quite staggering for someone who not only lives in this community, but he’s also hearing cases,” UVA professor and Black Lives Matter organizer Lisa Woolfork told me. “It implied to me a type of bias, a willingness to support the status quo that we have Confederate monuments at the heart of our city, and the idea that we should rewrite their meaning to be nothing more than statuary. And anyone who sees them as more than statuary is just reading into things.”
Indeed, the FAQ on the Monument Fund website describes Confederate monuments as being “like mirrors” and outright states that acknowledging the facts of history is a sort of racialized delusion:
“They reflect back what you expect to see. If you are inclined to admire Lee or Jackson or the military you will see dignity and honor and valor. If you are angry, looking for reasons to be angry, then you will see only those who fought for slavery, and imagine a cheering crowd in KKK costumes.”
Considering the copious footage of white nationalists surrounding the statues during Unite the Right, YouTube videos of Richard Spencer and other white nationalists at the Jackson statue in May 2017 and at the Lee statue less than two months after Unite the Right, and photos of the Ku Klux Klan itself at a rally to “defend” the monuments in July 2017, the need to imagine “crowd[s] in KKK costumes” is rendered unnecessary, and the suggestion it’s a figment of anyone’s imagination feels like the most transparent form of gaslighting. As for taking a shot at those who “see only those who fought for slavery”—quite literally the reason why both Jackson and Lee’s names made the history books—there’s something to be said for facts and literal history.
“What I like to caution people is that we cannot allow fascists to co-opt our institutions for their own gain, and I believe we are indeed seeing that in the court through these hearings and these lawsuits, to force Confederate monuments on the public, to make us look at them,” Professor Woolfork told me. “And then they argue in court that to remove the monument or to change them or to re-contextualize them is a form of what they call ‘irreparable harm,’ and that there’s people there who love the monument and who enjoy them and who want to revere their Confederate ancestors, and all of that is supposed to matter more than the rights of black people to be free of the racial terror that they enshrine.”
Denied a permit for an anniversary rally in Charlottesville, the white nationalist perpetrator of Unite the Right has announced he is now plotting a sequel in Washington, D.C. Ahead of August 12, Charlottesville’s anti-racist activists are hoping for the best while strategically preparing for the very worst, as embodied in the various stripes of white racists some suspect may descend on the town despite the August rally’s involuntary relocation. History is a lesson, and the threat of racist violence is a constant as long as the monuments remain, their perpetuation at least temporarily ensured by neo-Confederates in positions of power.
“This isn’t your backwoods, poor, white, uneducated people,” says Grace Aheron, an organizer with the Charlottesville chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. “That’s University of Virginia professors. That’s rich congressmen. Lee’s legacy is the one that they’re standing in.”
“Those monuments symbolize so much, and they have a shadow that’s being cast all the way up until the present that we need to take it seriously… It makes white supremacy seem like it’s just Nazis marching through the streets when, in fact, it’s heavily institutionalized in this place because of the legacy of people who make white supremacy look appealing. Or at least not that bad.”
This article was produced by Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.