Celebrated for more than a century, an iconic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is now suddenly seen as a symbol of white supremacy and Black oppression even in the eyes of justices who voted for its removal from a prominent spot in Virginia, citing “values change.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia on Thursday, Sept. 2, ruled that the state can take down the enormous statue in the capital city Richmond, saying “values change and public policy changes too,” in a democracy, The Associated Press reported.
The justices decided in a 7-0 vote, citing testimony from historians who said the statue was erected in 1890 to honor the southern white citizenry’s defense of a pre-Civil War life that depended on slavery and the subjugation of Black people.
The statue now, more than a century later, continues to display principles “that many believe to be inconsistent with the values the Commonwealth currently wishes to express,” they said.
Though Virginia promised to forever maintain the statue in 1887 and 1890 deeds transferring its ownership to the state, the court ruled that obligation no longer applies, according to AP.
“Those restrictive covenants are unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel … the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees,” the justices wrote.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of Gen. Lee’s bronze equestrian sculpture in June 2020, ten days after the death of black man George Floyd.
Floyd’s death triggered a wave of nationwide protests over racism, in which the statue of Gen. Lee also became the epicenter of a protest movement.
But two separate lawsuits were seeking to block the order, with one filed by a group of five residents who own property near the statue and another filed by William Gregory, a descendant of signatories to the 1890 deed. The property owners argued Northam is bound by an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly that accepted the statue and agreed to maintain the monument to Gen. Lee, while Gregory argued the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue.
Though the plaintiffs’ attorneys told the justices in a June 8 hearing that Northam exceeded his authority under Virginia’s Constitution, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office countered that a small group of private citizens could not force the state to maintain a monument that no longer reflects its values. And the high court sided with the governor.
“Democracy is inherently dynamic. Values change and public policy changes too. The Government of the Commonwealth is entitled to select the views that it supports and the values that it wants to express,” Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote.
Following the ruling, the 21-foot (6-meter) statue is expected to be cut into pieces for transport to an undisclosed storage site.
Northam’s office said the state had begun work on logistical and security preparations for the removal.