WASHINGTON — A tall, dark figure and his horse, immortalized in bronze, stand in newly renamed Emancipation Park, overlooking gardens filled with flowers.
The statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee has been in the central Virginia city of Charlottesville almost 100 years, stoically watching over the community. But possibly not for much longer.
Monuments built to commemorate Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy — the losing side in the U.S. civil war between 1861 and 1865 — have become a controversial issue in the United States. Many already have been removed or relocated, while others like the one of Lee in Charlottesville are threatened with the same fate.
Opponents of the statues say they represent some of the darker chapters of U.S. history when slavery was legal and racism was the norm. Others believe removing a monument is like removing a piece of history, and say they only commemorate the individuals.
One of the turning points that touched off the trend was the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, historian Lesley Gordon said.
The massacre at the hands of a man who had white supremacist views brought the controversy over memorials to defeated southern military officers and politicians to national attention.
Approximately a month after the attack, the South Carolina legislature ended what had been a long debate and voted to removed a confederate flag from its capitol grounds.
Several cities followed suit. One of the most public instances was in New Orleans, Louisiana, where several statues have been taken down since 2015. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said there are “truths about our city that we must confront” in a speech after the last statue was removed in May.
Landrieu wondered why there are no monuments to remember “the pain, the sacrifice, the shame” of slavery in New Orleans, yet so many monuments have been erected in honour of Confederate soldiers and leaders.
This is “a lie by omission,” he said. “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E Lee was recently voted to be removed, drawing both public support and public outcry.
Some groups are fighting to keep it in place. Most notably, the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a rally on July 8 attended by more than 1,000 people, including approximately 50 KKK members and supporters, city spokesperson Miriam Dickler said. Many of the rest of the crowd were counterprotesters.
Despite a public outcry over the city’s approval of the event, Gordon, chairwoman of southern history at the University of Alabama, said that while the KKK and its message of white supremacy are “abhorrent,” they have the right to express their views in public.
“At the same time, it needs to be recognized just what they are advocating and why,” Gordon said.
White supremacists advocating for keeping Confederate monuments in place is nothing new. The statue was dedicated in 1924 and was one of many Confederate monuments built in the years after the U.S. civil war.
The groups involved in planning the statue’s dedication actively promoted what Gordon called the “lost cause narrative,” meaning they celebrated the Confederacy’s soldiers and leaders and ignored what the war was really about: slavery.
“By 1920, the lost cause was unabashedly white supremacist in its messaging, reflective of the Jim Crow South and terroristic violence waged against African Americans.”