Virginia Supreme Court gives green light to removal of Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond

The colossal statue of General Lee on horseback overlooks Monument Avenue, an increasingly unsuitable name for the major Richmond street.

The Robert E. Lee statue was heavily graffitied throughout months of protest. (Tony Alter/Flickr)

Virginia’s high court has given the state government the green light to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, the state capital.

Although Gov. Ralph Northam announced his decision to remove the statue in June 2020 amid nationwide unrest following the death of George Floyd, two separate lawsuits attempting to block its removal had delayed any further action.

But on Thursday the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled against the private citizens who filed the lawsuits, declaring that “restrictive covenants” in the 1887 and 1890 deeds that gave the Lee statue to the state of Virginia are “unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable.”

“Their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees,” the justices wrote in their decision, according to an AP report.

The colossal statue of General Lee on horseback overlooks Monument Avenue, an increasingly unsuitable name for the major Richmond street. Upon the Lee statue’s removal, the only monument remaining will be one that commemorates black tennis champion and Richmond native Arthur Ashe, which was unveiled in 1996.

Race rioters forcibly tore down a 113-year-old monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in June 2020; then the following month Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney removed statues of Confederate military figures J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. Unlike the Lee statue, these statues were owned by the city government.

Controversy over public monuments to Confederate heroes has occasionally flared up for many years, though removal efforts in multiple states did not generally begin in earnest until the outbreak of the George Floyd riots last summer.

The Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Monuments at the Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, were taken down this year on July 10. The park — formerly known as Emancipation Park and, prior to that, Lee Park — was the epicenter of the infamous Unite the Right rally in August 2017, which featured confrontations and violence between far-right protesters and far-left counter protesters.

In June of this year the House of Representatives voted to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol, with Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber joining 67 other Republicans and every single House Democrat in passing the bill. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey then introduced the bill before the U.S. Senate in July, but the statues will remain in the Capitol until the bill passes and is signed by President Joe Biden.