On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that Richmond’s largest Confederate statue will be removed—one among the many statues in honor of the Confederacy that are being taken down in cities across the U.S., as thousands of people nationwide take to the streets to stand up against racial inequality and injustice.
The statues have proved divisive for communities for years. For some, they’ve symbolized heritage, but for many, many others, the statues have been a symbol of past and present racism in the U.S. Calls to remove them came once again at the forefront as thousands of people protest police brutality after the officer-involved killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In response, many city leaders have decided to remove the statues. Some have already come down in Birmingham and Mobile, Ala.; Louisville, Ky.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Alexandria, Va., among other places. Activists in many other cities are petitioning for their statues to be removed.
The statues have always been rooted in white supremacy, historians say. They were erected en masse through the southern U.S. in the late 19th Century, years after the Civil War ended, specifically as a reminder to African Americans that white people held power.
“It’s not just that the statues represent white supremacy, but the purpose of building the statues was the perpetuation of white supremacy,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, tells TIME. “This is why they put them up in the first place; to affirm the centrality of white supremacy to Southern culture.”
How did the debate about Confederate monuments begin?
In the last few years, amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2015 mass shooting of nine African Americans at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, S.C., a debate was sparked about whether the statues should remain in public spaces. The statues became the centerpiece of protests, most infamously the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, during which white nationalists gathered to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue commemorating Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a protest that ended with one person killed and dozens injured.
“Activists and organizers and people who are part of these racial-justice movements, including young white people, recognize that we can’t change policing in America until we change the culture of America, and the culture of America has been deeply steeped in white supremacist celebration and racist norms, of which Confederate monuments are the most visible symbols,” says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University.
“The point of removing the monuments is to move from symbolism of racism to the substance of racism,” he adds.
A 2019 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found 780 monuments dedicated to the Confederacy located in 23 states.
When did the Confederate statutes go up?
Most Confederate statues were erected between 1890 and 1929, about 30 years after the end of the Civil War. During this time Jim Crow laws were being enacted, and the first generation of African Americans born outside of slavery were deemed a threat to white people and their way of life. White southerners embraced the “Lost Cause,” myth, a glorification of the “Old South” and a reimagining of the Civil War as a heroic effort that was romanticized and painted in the best possible terms. Though historians agree the Civil War was fought to preserve slavery, believers of the Lost Cause myth reinterpreted the war as a battle for southern autonomy, secession and states’ rights.
“These statues were erected, in essence, as a reminder to the community that Southern order and Southern culture depended upon white supremacy,” Grossman says.
By the 1910s, Confederate statues spread throughout most of the South. “That’s when we really begin to see every state across the South participate in these rituals to define the period of the Civil War and slavery as the ‘Lost Cause,'” says Muhammad. “A very white-washed, nostalgic version of a time when white southerners were in power in a way that they had full control over their black population, and that black people were happy slaves.”
A similar pattern happened again during the 1950s after Brown v. Board of Education, when school officials throughout the country began renaming campuses in honor of Confederate soldiers in response to the Supreme Court ruling that they must desegregate.
2015-2017: ‘These are cycles of controversy’
Grossman points out that there had always been calls for removing the statues. “These are cycles of controversy that have erupted really since the late 19th century,” he says. “The problem is that each time the controversy has swirled, it has died down because people who have been uncomfortable with these statues have not had their voices heard.”
But after the 2015 shooting, many city officials did begin to remove them. Most famously, the mayors of New Orleans and Baltimore removed every confederate monument in their cities in 2017. After the shooting in Charleston in 2015, 114 Confederate statues were removed nationwide according to the SPLC.
The pushback against the removing of statues was swift. Some states began passing laws preventing cities from removing the memorials, and many, including white nationalists, organized to defend the statues.
In Charlottesville, Va., white nationalists at the “Unite the Right” rally convened around a statue of Robert E. Lee in an attempt to keep it from being removed by city officials, all the while chanting racist and anti-Semitic lines and carrying tiki torches. Clashes with counter-protesters led to violence, and an Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr., drove into a crowd killing counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Which states are removing their Confederate statues now?
Some Virginia cities have taken the lead in removing Confederate statues—though in some cases the statues have been removed by protesters. In Richmond on Saturday, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham. On June 10, protesters in Richmond also toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
A date has not yet been set for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond. “This is an old and heavy piece,” the Virginia Department of General Services said in a June 8 statement. “The massive statue weighs approximately 12 tons, stands 21 feet tall, and has been on a 40-foot pedestal for 130 years. Meticulous planning is required to remove an aging monument of this size and scale safely.”
A Richmond judge on June 8has also blocked the removal of the statue for 10 days, citing a deed from 1890 that promised the state would “faithfully guard and affectionately protect it.”
Statues have already been removed in Alexandria and a slave auction block was removed in Fredericksburg, Va., on June 5.
In Birmingham, protesters began attempting to topple the statues themselves. Alabama is one of several states with laws preventing localities from removing monuments. The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act was signed into law in 2017, directly after a nationwide reckoning over the statues and calls to have them removed. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin stopped protesters who were attempting to dismantle a Confederate statue on May 31, promising to have the statue removed. By June 2, the monument was gone, but Woodfin is now being sued by the state. “I wanted to make sure that if I had to choose between more civil unrest in my city, versus violating the state law and taking it down—because it doesn’t deserve to be there anyway—then I chose to protect the city to avoid any more civil unrest,” Woodfin told the Today Show on June 3.
Early on June 8, Louisville, Ky., officials removed a statue of John Breckinridge Castleman, a Confederate officer. The city had been fighting the state for two years to remove the statue, and on Friday a Jefferson Circuit Court judge sided with the city.
In Nashville on June 4, the Montgomery Bell Academy promised to remove a statue of Sam Davis, a Confederate soldier, within a week after an alum of the school began a petition.
Overnight on June 9, Jacksonville, Fla., removed a statue commemorating the Civil War. The removal was unannounced and happened shortly before Mayor Lenny Curry announced plans to remove all remaining confederate monuments.
On June 9, the University of Alabama began removing three plaques commemorating students who fought for the Confederate Army.
On June 16 in Maryland, a panel voted to remove a plaque from the capital that honors Confederate soldiers.
On June 18, the University of Mississippi announced it would be moving a monument to the Confederacy from a prominent spot on the campus, to a secluded Civil War cemetery. “This is a time for change. For me, that means moving the monument away from the center of our campus,” wrote Glenn Boyce, the university chancellor, in a public statement. “That monument has divided this campus, and the process of its removal from the Circle is one I am committed to seeing through to completion. There is more to do, but this needs to happen.”
On June 24, Charleston, S.C., began the removal of a statue of former Vice President John Calhoun, who was a defender of slavery. City Council had voted unanimously to remove the statue the day before.
Other symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy have also started to be removed. The U.S. Marine Corps announced a ban on all images of the Confederate flag on June 5, and on June 4 a statue of a Texas Ranger at Dallas Love Field Airport was removed after a reexamination of the ranger’s racist history. On June 7 in the U.K., protesters toppled a statue of a known slave trader. Protesters have also started to target statues of Christopher Columbus. In Minneapolis, Boston and Richmond, statues of Columbus have been either toppled or disfigured. On the evening of June 15, a similar protest turned violent in Albuquerque, N.M., when a protester calling for the removal of a statue of a Spanish Conquistador was shot.
What has the reaction been to the decision?
Debate for and against removal has continued in the cities where statues have already been removed and where there are plans for removal. The day before Gov. Northam announced plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney announced a plan to remove the rest of the city’s Confederate monuments. In response, Republican State Senator Amanda Chase took to Facebook to say: “Let’s be honest here. There’s an overt effort to erase all white history.” She added that she felt the statues were artistic expressions protected by the First Amendment.
The next day, the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus issued a statement signed by nearly 20 State Senators calling Chase’s comments “idiotic,” but ultimately arguing that the state should keep the monuments, and alluding to Gov. Northam’s own racial controversy in 2019 when a yearbook image appeared to show him dressed in blackface.
“The Governor’s decision to remove the Lee statue from Monument Avenue is not in the best interests of Virginia,” the caucus said. “Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail. And because of this Governor’s personal history, the motivations of this decision will always be suspect. Like Senator Chase’s idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory response, his decision is more likely to further divide, not unite, Virginians.”
On June 10, Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted a video of protesters toppling a statue of Columbus in St. Paul, Minn., and wrote “American Taliban.”
Many other municipalities across the country are now having to decide what will happen to their Confederate monuments. At the Georgia state capitol in Atlanta, protesters have surrounded a statue of John Brown Gordon, a Confederate soldier who is believed to also be the founder of the state’s Ku Klux Klan.
City leaders across the country are now also reconsidering the names of schools and streets that honor Confederate soldiers, or other known racists.
“Is this the way we want to represent ourselves? That’s the question we have to ask,” Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, tells TIME. “I think now people are saying no. And that’s why you have people protesting. This is not the America we want to be.”
What could happen next?
Every push towards racial equality has historically led to a backlash, Berry says. After the Charleston shooting, North Carolina passed a law banning the removal of historical monuments, for example.
Berry, Grossman and Muhammad each say they hope that the statues will be removed and placed in museums to allow for historians to provide context, including about the efforts of those who fought for the removal of the statues. “That may allow people to recognize and understand the enormity of people’s commitment to white supremacy,” Berry says.
Muhammad adds that city leaders who have already removed their statues should continue to convene with anti-racist activists and organizers to fix local problems. And city leaders who have not yet, “my guess is that any community that has a Confederate monument that’s not willing to take it down is a community that needs a whole lot of activists to make the case through various forms of protest, rallies, demonstrations and perhaps some forms of civil disobedience.”
“We can’t get to learning from our history if we keep accepting that racism should be celebrated in American history,” Muhammad adds.