The Last Stand of Robert E. Lee

The Last Stand of Robert E. Lee

If Charlottesville can’t remove its Confederate statues, then at least its residents can work to undermine their message.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie

There are many ways in which Charlottesville, Virginia, is still reeling from the Unite the Right rally in 2017 that claimed one life and made the city synonymous with the resurgent white nationalism of the Trump era. A makeshift memorial still marks the spot where Heather Heyer was killed and dozens of others injured. Politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens are still grappling with what the rally revealed about the city’s legacy of white supremacy. And the focal point of the protest—the Robert E. Lee statue—still stands.

That might change soon. Under Governor Ralph Northam, the new Democratic majority in the Virginia General Assembly may amend the law that forbids cities and localities from removing their Confederate monuments. Charlottesville may finally remove the most visible markers of its racist past.

In the meantime, residents have started to use the statue—as well as a similar equestrian sculpture of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—as a canvas of sorts. Every few months, someone paints a new message or does a little damage. If the city can’t remove the statues, then at least its residents can work to undermine their message. The most recent attempt was in September, when an unknown artist spray-painted both statues with “1619,” a reference to the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” on the legacy of American slavery. The meaning is straightforward. These statues and the Lost Cause ideology they represent are direct legacies of slavery. And as long as they’re a part of the landscape, that cannot be forgotten.

Jamelle Bouie is an opinion columnist for the New York Times.