‘It’s time’: Northam orders removal of Lee statue in Richmond

FILE — This Tuesday, June 2, 2020 file photo shows a large group of protesters gather around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue near downtown in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Invoking Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s own words, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the statue of Lee would be removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond.

“In Virginia, we no longer practice a false version of history,” Northam said, ordering the statue removed “as soon as possible.”

The governor said there will be “discussions” about what to do with the statue and the pedestal.

The Lee statue is one of five Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential street and National Historic Landmark district in Virginia’s capital.

Monuments along the avenue have been rallying points during protests in recent days over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last week, and they have been tagged with graffiti, including messages that say “end police brutality” and “stop white supremacy.”

Asked “Why now?,” Northam replied, “It’s pretty apparent.”

Protester holds sign in DC
Demonstrators protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis
Rain falls over a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd near Lafayette Park and the White House, on June 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis
Demonstrators protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at the fence line of Lafayette Park and the White House, on June 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

America Protests Washington
Demonstrators protest, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Protesters in rain in DC
In pouring rain, demonstrators protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd near Lafayette Park and the White House, on June 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Americas Protests In Washington
Demonstrators protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Protesters in the rain
Demonstrators protest, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Protesters in the rain in Washington
Demonstrators protest, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Protesters at White House gate
Demonstrators protest, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Protesters chant in the rain
Demonstrators protest, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Demonstrators protest, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Utah National Guard soldiers stand on a police line as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis
Demonstrators peacefully protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at the Lincoln Memorial, on June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A woman addresses a crowd gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)

Demonstrators protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Protestors gather near the Capitol building in D.C. (Shannon Finney)

Photographers pose near the Capitol building in D.C. during the seventh day of protests in the city. (Shannon Finney)

Black Lives Matter protests filled the D.C. streets Thursday, the seventh day of protesting after the death of George Floyd. (Shannon Finney)

A protestor in D.C. holds up a sign recognizing Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March by police in Louisville. (Shannon Finney)

A man holds up a sign recognizing the amount of time officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd, killing him in Minneapolis last week. (Shannon Finney)

A man holds up a sign while riding a bicycle near the Washington Monument on Day 7 of protests in D.C. (Shannon Finney)

Protests continued Thursday, with many people holding “Black Lives Matter” signs in the streets of D.C. (Shannon Finney)

A man walks his dog with a “Black Lives Matter” sign around its collar. (Shannon Finney)

“I can’t breath.” “Black Lives Matter.” Many signs bearing these phrases were held during Day 7 of protests in D.C. (Shannon Finney)

A man walks on a D.C. street holding a sign during Day 7 of protests. (Shannon Finney)

A large crowd assembles in D.C. on Day 7 of protests. (Shannon Finney)

A man carries an upside down American flag during Day 7 of protests in D.C. (Shannon Finney)

A military vehicle seen on the streets of D.C. during Day 7 of protests. (Shannon Finney)

More military presence near the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Shannon Finney)

While making their way to their posts for the day, members of an airborne military unit tasked with crowd control move up 15th Street outside the U.S. Treasury Building June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)

Demonstrators walk past the Washington Monument as they protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Demonstrators walk as they protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Demonstrators protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Alex Brandon)

DNC chair Tom Perez, right, joins demonstrators protesting Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Alex Brandon)

A worker cleans graffiti following several nights of protests Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

With the White House in the background, Hengameh Pourkarim, an ICU nurse, joins demonstrators as people gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Demonstrators protest Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Protesters gather in Friendship Heights near the border of Maryland and D.C. on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Senate Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), take a knee as they participate in a moment of silence to honor George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images/Sarah Silbiger)

Standing near a statue of Frederick Douglass, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., center, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., right, pause during a prayer Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2020, during an event to commemorate the life of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Democratic Senators pause for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2020, to commemorate the life of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Protesters gather in Friendship Heights near the border of Maryland and D.C. on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Protesters gather in Friendship Heights near the border of Maryland and D.C. on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Protesters gather in Friendship Heights near the border of Maryland and D.C. on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Protesters gather in Friendship Heights near the border of Maryland and D.C. on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Protesters gather in Friendship Heights near the border of Maryland and D.C. on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Projected text reading “Respect existence or expect resistance” is seen on a facade of a building for the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died last week after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis on June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)

Projected text reading “Demilitarize the police” is seen on an army vehicle on June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)

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Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis
Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis
America Protests Washington
Protesters in rain in DC
Americas Protests In Washington
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Protesters in the rain in Washington
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Protesters chant in the rain
Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis

Lee’s words

The governor said, “Lee himself didn’t want a monument, but Virginia built him one anyway.”

Northam quoted Lee’s words: “I think it wise not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavor to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”

But “Virginia leaders said, ‘We know better,’” Northam said. The erection of the statue in 1890 was just part of “a new campaign to undo the results of the Civil War by other means,” which included new laws, including limits on the right to vote, which cut the number of registered black voters by 90%.

“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” Northam said. “Think of the message this sends.”

Saying that the six-story monument towers over its surroundings, the governor added, “When a young child looks up and sees something that big and prominent, she knows that it must be important. And when it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: ‘This is what we value the most.’ But that’s just not true anymore.”

He called the honoring of Lee an aspect of the “false version of history” that claims the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery.

“No one believes that any longer,” Northam said.

‘It’s time’

A chorus of Virginians, including elected officials and activist citizens, echoed Northam’s words.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, introducing Northam. “It’s time to put an end to the Lost Cause and fully embrace the righteous cause.”

He added, “Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy.”

Zyahna Bryant, who wrote the first petition in 2016 calling for the removal of the Lee statue in Charlottesville, called for more of the kind of activism that had brought the Richmond statue down.

“Without a little bit of making people uncomfortable,” she said, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Bryant concluded by saying, “Black lives matter.”

Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, great-great-grandnephew of the Confederate general, said that “Today the world is watching” because of the protests surrounding Floyd’s death.

“If today is not the right time, when will it be the right time?”

During the announcement, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said, “This is the first day of the next 400 years.”

He called conditions such as substandard schools and housing, and inequities in health and criminal justice, “shrines of an ideology of inferiority” that constituted “more Confederate monuments.”

Fairfax added, “There is so much more work to be done.” And he concluded, “America has its best days ahead of us because of what we’re doing right now.”

Attorney General Mark Herring called the Lee memorial “a grandiose monument honoring a racist insurrection.”

The way we explain our history, he said, influences “the way each of us view our role in our society.” He added, “How do you possibly explain these statues to a black child? … You can’t.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a former governor of Virginia, was asked about the decision to bring down the statue during a conference call with reporters. “I think it’s time,” he said, noting the moment and that there was local support in Richmond for the decision.

Northam seemed to refer to his blackface scandal from last year, answering a question about his process toward making Thursday’s order, saying he had spent a lot of time “listening and learning.”

He encouraged all Virginians to do so, as one of the steps the commonwealth could take moving forward.

A movement

Confederate memorials began coming down after a white supremacist killed nine black people at a Bible study in a church in South Carolina in 2015, and then again after a violent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.

Word got out Wednesday that Northam would announce the removal. The same day, Stoney announced plans to seek the removal of the other Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, which include statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. Those statues sit on city land, unlike the Lee statue, which is on state property.

Stoney said he would introduce an ordinance July 1 to have the statues removed. That’s when a new law goes into effect, which was signed earlier this year by Northam, that undoes an existing state law protecting Confederate monuments and instead lets local governments decide their fate.

The monument-removal plans drew criticism Wednesday from the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who is running for governor, has started a petition on her campaign website to save the statues, claiming, “The radical left will not be satisfied until all white people are purged from our history books.”

Joseph Rogers, a descendant of enslaved people and an organizer with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, said Wednesday at a rally near the Lee Monument that he felt like the voices of black people are finally being heard.

“I am proud to be black, proud to be Southern, proud to be here right now,” Rogers said.

WTOP’s Mitchell Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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