A statewide coalition wants to make sure that 2020 is the year Virginia lawmakers change the state code to allow cities and counties the power to remove Confederate statues in public spaces.
“If our General Assembly in this upcoming legislature cannot act now to remove these beacons of hate, I don’t know when we’ll have the courage to do so,” Charlottesville City Councilor Bellamy said at a news conference Monday to kick off the campaign for local control of the statues.
Currently, state code prevents localities from removing war monuments. Though Bellamy’s term in office ends Tuesday, he said he plans to be a “full participant” in efforts to change the law.
Del.-elect Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, is planning to file a bill to authorize Virginia localities to have local control over monuments, and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, has agreed to file a companion bill in the Senate, according to Monumental Justice Virginia, a statewide coalition established to lobby for the change.
Monumental Justice is planning a Jan. 8 rally in Richmond, and it has chartered two buses from Charlottesville to the rally. People from across the state are expected to attend.
“This is an opportunity for Virginia to get on the right side of history,” said Lisa Woolfork, an activist and University of Virginia professor. “… These statues are not neutral objects. They are racist relics forced upon communities who do not worship the white supremacy they enshrined.”
Although bills to change the law failed in 2018 and 2019, Bellamy said he fully expects they’ll pass in 2020, when Democrats take control of the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate.
The legislative session, which starts Jan. 8, will be the first in 26 years that Democrats have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion.
Hudson said she is proud to be filing the legislation.
“Though I’m proud to do that work, I want to be crystal clear: Mine is just a very small leg in a race run by so many others,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the activists, the artists and the educators and all the elected leaders who have elevated this issue to its rightful place. … They have endured exhaustion and danger and endless opposition in that work, and every single one of us owes them a debt.”
Kristin Szakos, a former Charlottesville city councilor and a member of the planning committee of the coalition, kicked off the news conference and highlighted the fact that Charlottesville hasn’t been able to join other communities across the country that have taken down their Confederate monuments.
“Monuments to Confederate generals don’t reflect the values of our community,” she said.
[Related: Stories related to Charlottesville’s attempts to move or alter Confederate statues]
The push to take the statues down intensified in 2015 after nine African Americans were killed in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter was later convicted on federal hate crime charges.
Szakos said the monuments, unveiled in the early 1900s, were part of the message of the times: “That white supremacy still reigned in the South, and that these warriors had fought for a just cause.”
Szakos, Bellamy and former City Councilor Bob Fenwick voted in early 2017 to remove the statues of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson; however, those efforts were stymied by a lawsuit arguing that the vote violated state code.
A judge ruled in September that the statues must say; the city is planning to appeal.
Bellamy said he cut his vacation short to attend Monday’s event. Holding his 3-month-old daughter in his arms, he called on those in attendance to keep the pressure on lawmakers to ensure they follow through on their promises.
“Because now is the time to act,” he said. “We’ve had several different years of individuals straddling the fence, playing the middle, pretending as if these statues are just monuments of art or making excuses in terms of why these statues, particularly here in Charlottesville and across the commonwealth of Virginia, cannot come down.”
In March 2016, Bellamy organized a news conference to call for the removal of the Lee statue. Several people protested that event, waving Confederate flags and jeering Bellamy.
The scene was much different Monday as supporters and media members surrounded Bellamy at the Free Speech Wall. No jeers tried to drown out his message now.
“The time for those statues to move was yesteryear, and we have the opportunity to do so right now,” he said.