Local activists and politicians supporting the removal of confederate monuments and statues are encountering old laws and new legal and political barriers erected by opponents of their efforts.
In Franklin, the majority White (4-3) city council recently backed away from a proposal to discuss the removal of the confederate monument located in a city park on Clay Street in the north end of that city.
Third Ward Councilman Greg McLemore, who is Black, made a motion and received a second, on a proposal to allow the council to just discuss the idea of removing the statue.
But McLemore was the only member of the governing council to support the measure.
Councilwoman Mary Hilliard, who has the longest tenure among the three Black members on council, voted against the measure.
Linwood Johnson, who seconded the motion, abstained from casting a vote; so did Mayor Frank Rabil and Councilman Robert Hutchins.
Barry Cheatham, the Vice Mayor, and Benny Burgess also voted against the measure.
In Virginia Beach, the City Attorney issued an opinion stating the confederate monument in that locale could not be moved because it was built before the city was chartered and was part of Princess Anne County.
The monument is located outside of the former Princess Anne County Courthouse.
It has been targeted for removal by groups like the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) and the Coalition for Equal Justice.
They recently staged a rally at the foot of the statue and stated their reasons for it to be removed.
Virginia Beach City Attorney Mark Stiles said, according to a 1904 Virginia law, the location of a war memorial in a county cannot be interfered with or disturbed.
Today’s Virginia Beach came about in 1963 as a conglomeration of the old Princess Anne County and the hamlet of Virginia Beach.
His opinion was confirmed by parts of the state law which also said cities could move war memorials built before 1997, according to an interpretation handed down by the Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
Norfolk’s monument was built in 1907. Portsmouth’s was constructed during the opening days of Jim Crow, 14 years before.
The mayors and councils of those cities have discussed removing the monuments from public land in their respective downtown areas to nearby cemeteries. But action has been placed on hold until resolutions of legal battles in state and local courts.
The Virginia Beach council has not directly addressed the issue. Instead the task of dealing with it has been handed over to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, a panel of volunteers appointed by council.
On Sept 6, the commission held a public hearing to hear views on the monument from residents and activists.
Michael Callahan, a co-leader of the PDA, called for its removal before the commission. Callahan said that he and colleagues will be meeting to work out their next move, to prod the city on the monument’s removal.
Callahan, a transplant from Pawtucket, Rhode Island over two decades ago, said his hometown had a debate over a Christian cross in a public space.
“According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a city government could not take sides in religion or a political issue,” said Callahan. “This is a confederate statue. That status is a reminder to African-Americans now, of laws that codified the beating and killing of their ancestors by members of the confederacy, which was led by traitors who committed treason and attacked our government.”
Roy Perry-Bey, founder of the 130-member Coalition for Equal Justice, said the city has a legal option to remove the monument.
“They could ask the state legislature to grant them permission to remove the statue,” said Perry-Bey, “because the state law is usurping the independent powers of a local municipality. The City of Virginia Beach is actually endorsing hate speech by refusing to remove that symbol of hatred and slavery. This is not serving the greater community because it could expose the city to legal actions.”
Perry-Bey said the “confederate statue is an invalid loud expression of governmental racial hate speech which offends the First Amendment Establishment clause that prohibits the government from endorsing or supporting confederate nationalism above the United States and respecting its religious doctrine that white people are superior to those of all other races.”
Perry-Bey said, “The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality. Council has a sworn legal duty to reject recognizing, endorsing, supporting, promoting, honoring, maintaining and preserving confederacy, its symbols and the rebellious war effort to overthrow America.
He continued, “Confederate monuments, statues, flags, and images have no place on public property nor in government and the state law, Virginia code 15.2-1812 pertaining to memorials for war veterans, is limited to monuments erected after the law was last amended in 1998 and does not retroactively apply.”
Perry-Bey said the Coalition for Equal Justice will reach out to various civil rights groups locally to organize an economic boycott of the Virginia Beach tourist industry if the city continues to resist removing the statue.
By Leonard E. Colvin