On May 13, my community witnessed an appalling nighttime demonstration by white nationalist Richard Spencer and his followers, complete with torches held aloft, in a frightening image that went around the world. They came to protest the recent decision by the Charlottesville, Va., City Council to remove and sell our statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, erected during the Jim Crow era.
I immediately released a statement stating that the rally took us “back to the days of the KKK” and that “intolerance is not welcome” in Charlottesville. I find their ideology and their methods repellent. And I believe that as a nation, in 2017, we still haven’t fully confronted our history of racism. As a progressive, I believe addressing structural racism is a mission incumbent upon all of us: Whether we’re the descendants of slaves or of slave owners, we’re all part of a system built on slave labor, and we all have to play a role in dismantling the post-slavery system that perpetuated the oppression of African Americans.
Yet as the mayor and as a member of our Council, I voted with the minority against a 3-2 decision to move and then sell the statue. We shouldn’t honor the dishonorable Confederate cause, but we shouldn’t try to erase it, either.
A court temporarily enjoined the Council’s action, and a final decision should come later this year. Since the vote, some of my constituents have suggested that I’m unwittingly taking the side of Spencer and his ilk. Nothing could be further from the truth. I reject the false dichotomy that you must be either for or against the statue. I’ve advocated for a third path, one that has earned unanimous support from our Council: reimagining our parks by building new monuments as a powerful counter-narrative to their Jim Crow-era celebration of the Confederacy — neither forgetting the past nor accepting its grasp on our present and future.
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I arrived at my conclusion, though, after asking the Council to create a nine-member commission to study the issue. After hearing from hundreds of citizens in 17 open hearings, our commission — which initially included five (later four) African-American members — voted for two options, both of which keep the statues within the town limits.
One striking finding in the commission’s official report: “Numerous Charlottesville African-American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience. For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy.” This echoed what I heard in town hall meetings at black churches and private conversations. One noted leader of an African-American mentorship organization, for instance, told me he believes the statues should remain as a “teachable moment” about our history.
Local civil rights legend Eugene Williams, who was recognized by the Virginia General Assembly in 2015 for his pioneering work in affordable housing, has spoken out against removal, saying he wants the city stopped “from trying to destroy history.” So has Earvin Jordan, an African-American Civil War historian at the University of Virginia. “Civilization should be constructive rather than destructive,” Jordan said. “Charlottesville has enough space to erect new statues.”
If white supremacists hoped their rally would intimidate us, it backfired. I firmly believe that our approach will allow us to create a living history that at once rebukes and transcends the past, mirroring democracy itself — the constant churn of speech and ideas that has made our country the beacon of the free world.
Signer is mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia.