The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Confederate statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville can be removed, after a years-long legal battle involving attempts to preserve the historic Civil War memorials.
Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn said the city of Charlottesville could take the statues down because a 1997 law protecting war memorials did not apply retroactively to statues erected before the law was passed.
“In the present case, the statues were erected long before there was a statute which both authorized a city’s erection of a war memorial or monument and regulated the disturbance of or interference with that war memorial or monument,” Justice Goodwyn wrote.
He said the law “did not provide the authority for the city to erect the statues, and it does not prohibit the city from disturbing or interfering with them.” The ruling overturned a lower court’s decision that favored residents who wanted to block the city from removing the statues.
The Lee statue was the site of a White supremacist march in August of 2017, known as the “Unite the Right” rally. Neo-Nazi groups clashed with a group of protesters supporting the removal of the Civil War memorial.
One man ran over a protester with his car, killing her. Two state police officers also died when their helicopter crashed as they monitored events.
A group of residents had sued to stop the city from removing the statues of Lee, erected in 1924, and of Jackson, built in 1921, after outrage grew against Civil War memorials and symbols of slavery. One of the residents claimed he was related to the sculptor in bringing the lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville in 2017.
The residents pointed to the law passed in 1997 preserving a city’s ability to erect memorials — and also protecting the memorials from disruption.
A lower court ruled for the residents in part, saying Lee Park and Jackson Park could be renamed, but moving the statutes would be unlawful under the 1997 measure.