Racist statues removed across the country amid protests against police brutality


'Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy,' said the city's mayor.

In cities across the nation, public statues honoring racist figures from America's past are being taken down amid protests against racist violence.

The death of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd pleaded for breath was the catalyst for more than a week of protests against police brutality against black people that have swept across the country and around the world.

In response to demands for justice, many cities are removing statues depicting figures who fought in the Civil War to preserve slavery and others who embraced racism and bigotry.

Most of the statues honoring Confederate fighters and politicians were erected long after the war, in response to periods during which black people had achieved some measure of progress in the fight for civil rights and equality.

The Southern Poverty Law Center notes "two distinct periods that saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols. The first began around 1900, amid the period in which Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. The second began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists."

In Virginia this week, two prominent statues of Confederate figures were marked for removal.

On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that a 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond would be removed in the coming weeks. "Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy," said Levar Stoney, the mayor of Richmond.

Earlier in the week, the city of Alexandria removed a statue in honor of Confederate soldiers erected in the middle of the city in 1889. Alexandria "is constantly changing and evolving," Mayor Justin Wilson tweeted Tuesday morning as the statue was removed.

Even in the Deep South, monuments celebrating the Confederacy have come down.

In Alabama, the city of Mobile on Friday removed a statue of Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes erected in 1905. Republican Mayor Sandy Stimpson gave the order to take it down, saying that the removal of the statue "will not change the past," but that his decision was about "removing a potential distraction so we may focus clearly on the future of our city."

Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, ordered the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the city's Linn Park, also erected in 1905, removed on Monday, on Jefferson Davis Day, an official Alabama state holiday. "It's important that we take this down and move forward," Woodfin said on Wednesday.

Birmingham has now been sued for removing the monument by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear called for a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, to be removed from the state Capitol. "I believe the Jefferson Davis statue is a symbol that divides us," Beshear said on Thursday, adding that it should be relocated elsewhere "to put it in historic context."

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican and the first black person to hold that office in Kentucky, agreed with Beshear.

In Philadelphia, a statue honoring a more recent racist figure, Mayor Frank Rizzo, who led the city from 1972 to 1980, was removed from its location across from City Hall on Wednesday. Rizzo once asked the residents of the city to "vote white" and used violent and aggressive police tactics against black residents when he was police commissioner of the city, as NPR reported.

The statue "represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long," current Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said on Wednesday.

The removal of statues honoring racists has often provoked racist responses.

In 2017, white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, against plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. A woman was killed when a self-identified neo-Nazi drove his car through a group of counterprotesters.

"The ground is shifting on Confederate monuments as an issue so fast, after so many years of stasis," Jeremy Mayer, associate professor at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, said in an email on Friday.

The issue is "who we honor. What we, as a nation and a society, revere," Mayer said. "In Germany, they remember World War II and the Holocaust not by building statues of Goering or Rommel. They put up small brass plates on the houses of Jews who were liquidated by their government, saying in this house, on this date in 1940, this family was arrested, imprisoned, and here's where and how they died. We could do a lot of that here."

Some conservatives expressed opposition to the removal of racist symbols.

In Virginia, Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who is running for governor, said on Wednesday that Northam's decision to remove the monuments was a "cowardly capitulation to the looters and domestic terrorists."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.