Emotions ran high on statue issue

Published 10:15 am Monday, April 13, 2020

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For some, legislation that would permit local government to remove monuments was an emotional issue.

Under the final version of the bill, cities and counties will be allowed to remove Confederate monuments they own and maintain under legislation passed and sent to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.

The vote came almost three years after a series of threats by various groups in several states that damaged or threatened to tear down monuments in Virginia and other states. It came to a head when demonstrators against and defenders of the monuments rallied in Charlottesville around a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which the city council had wanted to remove but was blocked from taking down under state law protecting war memorials.

In the two years following the rally, the city pushed the state to amend the code as they fought a lawsuit challenging their vote to change the law, but Republican majorities blocked the legislation.

Leaders in Norfolk have also sought to remove a Confederate statue from a downtown street and a commission in Richmond recommended the city take down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Monument Avenue, named for the statues that line that avenue.

New Democrat majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate this year broadly agreed local governments should be able to decide where and how they deal with statues, but differed on the process localities should have to go through before taking action.

The Senate had proposed a 100-plus day process that included a mandatory review by the state’s Department of Historic Resources at the localities’ expense. It also pushed to require local governing boards to approve any changes by a super majority two-thirds vote, a threshold Charlottesville would not have met with its 2017 vote on the issue.

Lawmakers in the House opposed those requirements and ultimately were successful in negotiating final language that requires only a 30-day notice ahead of a public hearing. If localities choose, they can also hold a local referendum on the question.

The debate grew emotional as the legislative session came to a close, with some arguing the bill would only heighten racial divisions and Senator Mamie Locke of Hampton breaking down in tears as she explained the pain the statues caused her and her community.

Ultimately, the legislation passed the House over unanimous opposition by Republicans and won votes from two Republicans in the Senate, Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta.

Reeves told his colleagues on the floor he voted for the bill because he had worked to reach a compromise that included several stipulations that he determined were important.

Many of us were concerned that the monuments would be destroyed. Senator Reeves’ hard work will prevent this. Quoting him, “You’re not going to see them bulldozed on TV.”

The legislation also blocks removing memorials that are in cemeteries or on the campus of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson was an instructor. It instructs the Department of Historic Resources to develop regulations governing how localities that choose to retain the statues add historical context.

No one on our side sees these signs as being racist in any way. Nor do they in any way want to glorify the evil of slavery. However, many of us are descendants of those who fought for the South. They want to continue to see our forebearers honored.

As with most Virginians during that period, my family had no connection with slavery. In fact, only about one family in four did. Nevertheless, we admire the fact that those forebearers were willing to fight to stand up to what they believe was a federal government that was growing too strong and would dominate the rights of individual states.

Frank Ruff Jr. represents Lunenburg in the state Senate. His email address is Sen.Ruff@verizon.net.