Charlottesville is a peaceful little town; one of those built with red brick at the end of the 19th century and barely changed over time. Yet a statue of the Southern general, Robert E. Lee, has shaken up life in this small town. The American left considers it a symbol of racism and wants to remove it. Their project was halted by an association in defense of “historical monuments,” which, after having waged a long legal battle, has recently won an important victory.
For months, in fact, the statue was covered by black tarps, assembled to shield it from sight and not “hurt” people of color. However, a judge ruled the tarps illegal and hence ordered their removal. “It all started when the city council decided that the Robert Lee statue wasn’t ‘politically correct,’” recounts attorney Lewis Martin, a member of the ‘Save the Robert Lee Statue Association, “and opted to create a commission to identify all the ‘racist’ monuments so as to remove them. Since then, there has been an array of protests and counter-protests organized by the “alt-right” and other groups from the American far right, which culminated in the tragic riot on Aug. 12 that killed a woman. Though here, as Martin eagerly points out, “it isn’t about being racist or not. It’s about defending an important piece of our history.”*
Among the Virginia hills and plantations, many people could indeed boast of being directly descended from the Confederate soldiers who fought to defend the Southern states during their attempted secession. “Ever since I was little,” remembers Martin, “I was taught how General Lee was a positive figure. That he was a soldier who fulfilled his duty without hatred or resentment. On the contrary, after the war, he was committed to putting together the pieces of a nation torn apart by civil war. Today, the ‘liberal’ left instead wants to erase Lee from history, blaming him entirely for slavery and segregation. But he was innocent of these things.”
The problem, according to Martin, is that they want to use “Taliban tactics” to impose modern-day morals on the past. “Fortunately, our association has managed to stop the removal of the statue for now. But the point is that you can’t judge historical figures by today’s moral standards. What should we say then about Julius Caesar? History is history. These people who want to knock down the statues and monuments of the ‘losers’ to me do not seem to be acting differently from ISIS in Palmyra back in 2015, when they destroyed the archaeological site with explosives and hammers. They want to erase history. They want to rip a page out of it. And when they don’t succeed, they are even quick to improvise bizarre solutions like the black tarps to block the monument from view. Full-on burqas,”
This opinion was also shared by most of the people interviewed on the street, albeit with some exceptions. In fact, on Charlottesville’s main street, the passersby between the restaurants and small shops seemed to have few reservations. “General Lee is a piece of our history and to knock down his statue would be a mistake,” preached a woman in her fifties. “I think it’s a way to detract attention from the real problems,” said another lady. “He was a war hero, not a slave driver,” stressed the man who was with her.
Opinions on Lee and the Confederate past change, however, when coming from people not originally from Charlottesville. “The statue is a symbol of racist aggression; a way in which the whites kept the black population in submission,” according to the opinion of an Indian university professor who settled in town for work a few years ago.
And Lewis Martin always seemed to hold the explanation for this diametrically opposed view. “The majority of people in favor of removing the statue have no ties to this area or its history. They came from elsewhere. Some are professors who came to teach at the University of Virginia, others are progressive students who know little or nothing about the American Civil War, though I would advise all of them to set aside their ideological views and open a history book.”
The issue therefore remains highly controversial. It will be up to another judge to give the final word on the statue’s actual removal. What is certain, though, is that a country that destroys or erases its own past also runs the risk of doing the same to itself.
*Editor’s note: All quotations in this article have been accurately translated, but could not be verified.