Lead photo for E6, with MCSWEENEY

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, Aug. 16.

By Patrick M. McSweeney

Two days after reaffirming his position that Confederate statues along Monument Avenue should be given historical context but not removed, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney abruptly reversed himself by proposing removal, saying:

“While we had hoped to use this process to educate Virginians about the history behind these monuments, the events of the last week may have fundamentally changed our ability to do so by revealing their power to serve as a rallying point for division and intolerance and violence.”

That ignores the facts. The statues themselves have not generated violence. The decision to remove statues is what has led to violence, no matter how unjustified.

No responsible individual can condone the violence that occurred on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville or the previous night’s provocative torchlight parade by white supremacists. It should be Richmond’s priority to prevent violence and encourage tolerance.

The way to discourage violence and enhance tolerance would be to continue the process that the mayor had set in motion to encourage conversation about the meaning of the statues and their historical context.

Speakers at the Aug. 9 public hearing conducted by the mayor’s commission applauded the course initially chosen by the mayor and contrasted it with that chosen by the Charlottesville City Council.

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Congress enacted legislation in 1900 that recognized Confederate combatants as American veterans entitled to honorable treatment. Yet, there are frequent, unfounded accusations that Robert E. Lee and the others depicted on Monument Avenue are “traitors” and symbols of racial hatred.

Such provocative and unwarranted charges should be condemned, but the double standard of many in public office, academia, and the media allows those slurs to go unchallenged.

In a Times-Dispatch interview published on July 5, 2015, former President Jimmy Carter said that he had no problem with the display of Confederate statues because he did not view them as symbols of racism, but rather as memorials honoring war veterans who fought for what they believed in.

Those clamoring for removal reduce the complexity of history to a simplistic formula: the Union was entirely virtuous, while the Confederacy and everyone associated with it were evil because their only objective was to preserve slavery. We should be encouraged to consider history more carefully and to listen to all sides with graciousness and respect.

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe and gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam also changed their non-removal position and have joined Mayor Stoney in calling for the removal of the statues.

Each was cynically following the famous rule coined by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel during his tenure in the Obama administration: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. ... It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

The deplorable events in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12 provided such an opportunity. Seizing on those events for perceived political advantage was inexcusable.

It is important to have a process that leads to improved understanding of the legitimate concerns of all involved. Removal frustrates that process. Emotion and politics should be squeezed out to the extent possible.

History is never simple. The attempts to make the Robert E. Lee statue a symbol of hatred are at odds with his character and the reasons he decided to defend his native state rather than accept command of Union forces.

In a July 5, 2015, editorial, the Times-Dispatch said:

“The Lee statue depicts one of America’s greatest generals. The piece captures his military genius and personal character. The sculpture does not glorify an unworthy cause; it represents tragedy in the classical sense. The base says simply, ‘Lee.’ Nothing more needs to be said.”

Richmond can learn from the lessons provided by the events in Charlottesville. The mayor and City Council certainly can do better here.

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Patrick M. McSweeney is a Richmond native with 49 years of experience in constitutional and administrative law. Contact him at patrick@mck-lawyers.com.

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