‘Put up or shut up’: New organization will lobby Democratic legislators for statue removal

Wes Bellamy speaks at the Monumental Justice Virginia Campaign press conference. Photo: John Robinson Wes Bellamy speaks at the Monumental Justice Virginia Campaign press conference. Photo: John Robinson

The campaign to take down Charlottesville’s statues of Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee has taken on a new tenor with the election of a Democrat-majority government in Virginia.

The Monumental Justice Virginia Campaign, a new organization dedicated to removal of the statues, launched with a press conference at the Free Speech Wall on December 26. A larger rally will be held in Richmond on January 8. 

At the press conference, activists once again stated the case against the statues. A collection of supporters stood behind the speakers, holding crisp blue posters with the slogan “Monumentally Wrong” and large red Xs over images of the Lee and Jackson statues. 

“This is an opportunity for Virginia to get on the right side of history,” said Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor at UVA. “These statues are not neutral objects, they are racist relics forced upon communities who do not worship the white supremacy they maintain.” 

“It is past time to correct these monumental lies with some monumental justice,” Woolfork said.

Advocates for removal of the statues see a legal path forward that seemed unlikely before: The passage of a bill that would give control over statues back to localities. 

Delegate-elect Sally Hudson has promised to introduce such a bill when the General Assembly session begins on January 8. Former delegate David Toscano proposed similar bills in the last two General Assembly sessions, but neither made it out of committee. 

Though the movement’s hopes rest on Hudson and her legislation, the new delegate made sure to emphasize the broad coalition that has formed in opposition to the monuments.

“Movements like Monumental Justice change the world. Politicians just cut the ribbon,” Hudson said. “We wouldn’t be here today without the activists and artists and educators and all of the elected leaders who have elevated this issue.” 

“Thank you to every member of our community who has done the very ordinary yet essential work of correcting our public memory,” Hudson said, “Of sharing a fuller understanding of our history neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend.”

Woolfork read a statement from Zyahna Bryant, the student activist whose 2016 petition helped start the statue fervor. “Our public spaces should reflect the principles we strive for, one of them being freedom,” Bryant wrote. 

In her statement, Bryant made sure to underscore that removing the statues will not fix the larger systemic inequalities in the area. “We must also focus on the structural and situational change that must come along with removals as a package deal,” she wrote. 

Hudson acknowledged Bryant’s point. “In the days ahead, my colleagues and I will be introducing substantive legislation to confront white supremacy in all of its modern incarnations,” Hudson said. “Whether that is mass incarceration or segregation or the persistent inequity in our every institution.”

Former councilor Wes Bellamy spoke with his young daughter in his arms.

“If our General Assembly cannot act now to remove these beacons of hate, I don’t know when we will have the courage to do so,” he said.

For Bellamy, structural change and statue removal aren’t mutually exclusive. 

“People ask me, ‘Why can’t we focus on affordable housing? Why can’t we focus on schools?’” Bellamy said. “We can walk and chew gum simultaneously. In fact, we have an obligation to walk and chew gum simultaneously.”

“The time for those statues to move was yesteryear,” Bellamy said. “It’s time to put up or shut up.”

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Els
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Els

It is certainly time that localities have greater authority in placing publicly displayed statues and monumental art in most suitable places. Localities should not, however, have authority to destroy artwork without permission of the owners or donors of the artwork, unless in writing, by contract, or by court order. It is easy to imagine a local Muslim group donating a sculpture with writing from the Koran to the City – e.g. beside a City court to represent a vision of justice in society – and to imagine some future City Council wanting to remove it.

Ronald Amon
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Ronald Amon

While there are those who would attribute this to partisan politics, the real question remains “Are there any adults in the room?” Guess? Inclusion was never meant to destroy history and that which created and made the Commonwealth. Giving “who’s your daddy?” a new meaning. So who will be first to cave? And still call themselves a leader? Ralph knows compensatory behavior for black face doesn’t count. We don’t care about that. We do care about this.