George Floyd Protests Reignite Debate Over Confederate Statues

As protests against racism and police violence spread across the nation, demonstrators in at least six cities focused their anger on symbols of the Confederacy, seizing the opportunity to mar statues and monuments that have ignited debate for years.

Many of the monuments were vandalized with spray paint; protesters tried to topple others from their bases. In response, at least two cities this week have seen them removed from public spaces.

In Richmond, Va., this weekend, graffiti was scrawled on the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the building also burned for a time. Statues of the Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, all of which stand on the city’s Monument Avenue, were marked.

In Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, protesters climbed a 15-foot figure of a Confederate soldier and spray-painted its base. In Charleston, S.C., “BLM,” for Black Lives Matter, and “Traitors” were spray-painted in red on the base of the Confederate Defenders of Charleston statue, erected in 1932. In North Carolina, a Confederate monument at the State Capitol in Raleigh was marked with a black X.

And in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday, protesters spray-painted the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a 52-foot-tall sandstone obelisk, and chipped at its base. Then, according to news reports, they tried to topple it.

Even as workers arrived to tidy up the destruction, the protests have freshened the conversation around the fate of these controversial memorials, many of which have been the subject of legal challenges, especially in the years since a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Lee.

In the weeks after Charlottesville, dozens of plaques, statues and other monuments to the Confederacy were challenged or removed from public places across the country. Since then, there has been no unified plan for what to do with these landmarks. Some have been auctioned, moved, stored, covered or dismantled in recent years; others have remained while legal challenges have played out or failed.

“The conversation has never really died,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

The group has estimated that at least 138 Confederate symbols have been removed from public spaces since 2015, when it started tracking them after a white supremacist killed nine black congregants at a church in Charleston, S.C.

“There has been a consistent drive, primarily in the South, to remove these monuments,” Ms. Brooks said. “They are a constant reminder of the dehumanization of African-Americans and the pushback against our civil and human rights.”

Confederate monuments that survived the protests are facing renewed scrutiny as protesters, angered by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, have taken to the streets in at least 140 cities across the country.

A football coach in Murray, Ky., wrote a public letter to the town’s mayor on Tuesday asking for the removal of a statue of Lee — and offered to help take it down himself.

“I am a black male,” the coach, Sherman Neal II, wrote. “I am no longer willing to accept state-sponsored symbols of institutional racism in my community.”

In an interview, Mr. Neal said he wrote the letter because “you don’t get opportunities like this in history more than once in a lifetime to take action that can result in a change.”

The mayor, Bob Rogers, said the memorial sits on land owned by Calloway County and not the city.

“While we respect the opinions of all of our citizens, we are simply not in a position to legally pursue any efforts with regard to the Robert E. Lee Confederate Memorial,” Mr. Rogers said on Wednesday. County officials declined to comment.

In Huntsville, Ala., where protesters gathered on Monday to demand the removal of a Confederate monument from the grounds of the Madison County Courthouse, according to AL.com, a group of business owners wrote to the city on Tuesday asking that it be moved. “The tragic killing of George Floyd has magnified the deep pain experienced by African-American and other members of our community,” the group wrote.

About 100 miles south of Huntsville, Birmingham’s Confederate monument had been covered since last year amid a legal battle between the state attorney general and the city.

On Monday, a day after protesters began chipping away at the statue’s base, Mayor Randall Woodfin, over the objections of the state’s attorney general, ordered a crew to finish the job. Removing the statue from Linn Park, he said, would “prevent more civil unrest.”

On Tuesday, Alabama’s attorney general, Steve Marshall, announced that the state had filed a lawsuit against the city over its removal of the monument.

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Credit…Jay Reeves/Associated Press

In Richmond, Va., an oversized statue of Lee that towers over the city’s Monument Avenue was covered with graffiti, including the phrases “No More White Supremacy” and “Black Lives Matter.” The statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, on the avenue was also painted.

Virginia has more than 220 public memorials to the Confederacy, according to the governor’s office. A state law passed this year, which goes into effect on July 1, gives local governments the ability “to remove, relocate, or contextualize the monuments in their communities.”

“These monuments tell a particular version of history that doesn’t include everyone,” Governor Ralph S. Northam said when he signed the legislation in April. “In Virginia, that version of history has been given prominence and authority for far too long.”

On Tuesday, a few hours before protesters again gathered on Monument Avenue, Gov. Northam cited the new state law when asked about the protests that have focused on the statues. “Richmond or any other city has discussions on how to deal with these statues,” he said. “And there are a lot of options, a lot of discussion has taken place and will continue to take place.”

In Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington, D.C., a Confederate statue that had been slated to be removed next month was taken down on Tuesday.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that owns the statue, notified the city on Monday that it would remove it the next day, a spokesman for the city said. He said he did not know what the group planned to do with the statue. The United Daughters of the Confederacy did not respond to a request for comment.

“Alexandria, like all great cities, is constantly changing and evolving,” the city’s mayor, Justin Wilson, said on Twitter, sharing images of its removal.

In Oxford, Miss., the words “spiritual genocide,” along with red handprints, were painted on a Confederate monument on the University of Mississippi campus on Saturday, The Oxford Eagle reported.

The school’s chancellor said planning had begun months ago to relocate the statue from the center of campus.

In an open letter dated Sunday, the chancellor, Glenn F. Boyce, said the death of Mr. Floyd and those of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky “have evoked much anger, horror and disbelief” and “continue to tear apart the fabric of our country and impact our campus.”

“This is a time for change,” he wrote.

Mihir Zaveri and Christopher Mele contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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