LOCAL News :: Historical Reclamation : Labor & Class : Protest Activity : Race & Ethnicity

Richmonders respond to glorification of Robert E. Lee

Over the past few months, The City of Richmond has spent half a million dollars of the general maintenance budget to polish the controversial monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in time for the Sons of Confederate Veterans to celebrate his birthday.

On Friday, a concerned group of Richmonders came out to show their disapproval of the city's decision to financially support the SCV's celebrations of General Lee.

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At 10:00 a.m., the NAACP and the Virginia Anti-War Network held a press conference at the site of the monument to publicly register opposition to taxpayers' dollars being used to show support for the SCV's glorification of the general. Protesters began gathering before the press conference, and more filtered in as the 12 o'clock celebration neared.

By noon, there were roughly 40 Lee admirers at the monument, about a quarter of which came decked out in their finest reenactor apparel, and 20 protesters with fluorescent orange signs denouncing Lee and his admirers as racists, and demanding a monument for Gabriel Prosser. The protesters kept their distance from the monument and the SCV's gathering place, instead focusing on their visibility to passersby. Also in attendance were 5 RPD officers on horseback, one unmarked police sedan, and a police SUV.

Before the commencement of the day's event, a few of Lee's admirers approached the group of protesters, initiating varying levels of debate. Phil Wilayto was overheard asking an unnamed woman who was apparently there to attend the SCV event whether she would denounce slavery. Persistently avoiding a direct answer, she eventually stated, "I would be a fool to say I defend slavery," and went on to insist that the real reason people had gathered to protest the SCV's celebration was simply that they "hate one of the greatest men who ever lived." All confrontations remained relatively peaceful, and questionably useful.

Chris Sullivan, current "Commander-in-Chief" of the Sons of Confederate veterans, began his noontime speech by reminding his audience that Lee is one of many "great Virginians," including General George Pickett. He did go on, however, to state that Lee was one of the greatest Virginians, nay, "one of the greatest Americans, who ever lived." Sullivan announced that Friday's event was merely the kickoff to a year of activity, including events at his grave site, as well as a push to pass a bill creating a commemorative license plate, all in celebration of Lee's legacy.

What is Lee's legacy?

Sullivan's speech was followed with speeches from the two past "Commanders-in-Chief" of the SCV, and the engagement was closed with a group sing-along.

I asked a few of the protesters and spectators two questions:

1. What motivated you to come out today?
2. So many of the protesters here are white. What do you think is the role of white folks in anti-racism protesting?

Puck, from Maryland, currently living in Louisa County, VA:

1. Has an affinity/connection to RVA liberal community and is against racism. Sees confederacy as a symbol for racism and wants to see us step forward from the past, rather than continue to honor it.
2. To raise awareness and resist apathy. To increase visibility of opposition to racism, encourage broader participation in anti-racist work.

Kim, from Petersburg:
1. Works with college students and is bothered by the revisionist history that they've been taught. As a black woman growing up, if it weren't for her family's understanding of black history, she would have had an "up from slavery" mentality after school. In short, she sees the protest as an effort to "correct miseducation."
2. Sees anti-racist protesting as a matter of wrong/right, rather than black/white. Rather than race being important, a humanitarian consciousness is.

In addition to her answers, Kim added that while the mainstream media is not a particularly good tool for this, people must be vigilant in their search for anti-racist organizations and movements, and that getting involved is the best way to honor Dr. King.

Walker, from Richmond:
1. Came to document the day's events on video.
2. To pursue an accurate historical perspective.

Pablo, from Richmond:
1. Tired of living in a Richmond that thinks being the Capitol of the Confederacy is a point of pride, wants to show that the Confederacy is not what Richmond is all about.
2. It makes sense for white folks to have a role in anti-racist protesting, to make it known that not all white folks are about racism and the Confederacy.

Ross, from Richmond:
1. I love history in general but Southern history around the civil war and Reconstruction specifically. Also, I love Richmond. So anytime cool history things happen in town, I like to go out and try and support it.

I'm not sure I'd know what [protesters] think was being misrepresented. I don't think anyone is trying to romanticize slavery in anyway. If anything I think [SCV] try to bring a different opinion of the south and the civil war to the discussion. And as with all things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

I mean, I think it is a misrepresentation of the facts to wear a big sandwich board with Lee's picture on it and RACIST above it.

2. I think the single biggest issue facing Richmond is race. We have a long history of racism, and it has these crazy complex and long lasting consequences that no one knows how to deal with.

I live in a mostly black neighborhood and I would never fly the Confederate battle flag or even the stars and bars. But I still love Virginia and love our history, so I choose to fly the Virginia flag (which is pretty awesome). I think we (as youngish people) have to learn how to celebrate some of this history in a modern context, knowing how 400 years of racism plays into it.

Rain, from Richmond:
1. Has been inactive against racism, but the more she learns, the more she sees it is her duty to stand up against racism.
2. Racism is institutionalized, which should not be acceptable, and sees visibility of anti-racist folks as a step toward making it less so. Wants to encourage others to stand up as well, show that they don't have to be afraid, and are not alone.

Bob, from Richmond:
1. Bob believes that reenactment of racist history has no place in 21st century society, and that the SCV are delusional in regards to civil war "heroes", which were actually often war criminals. He wants to confront these delusions and make more truth visible.
2. White folks should have a lead role in anti-racist protesting/work, because racism emanates from the white community.

Phil, from Richmond:
1. Phil believes it's important that folks come out and challenge this kind of event. Those promoting the idea of Lee as a hero are working to convince white working people that their allegiance should be to their race, rather than to their (working) class. Phil went on to point out ways that Virginia is a terrible state for working people, and says that racism keeps the ruling class in power.
2. Believes it's important that people show that the ruling class doesn't represent us.

Chad, from Richmond, teaches History at Open High School:
1. Chad passed the monument and saw the crowd while he was on break; came with a desire to make SCV folks uncomfortable and to show his students a piece of living history.
2. Sees anti-racist work/protesting as everyone's role, regardless of race. Thinks it's a trick (works in racism's favor) for people to think that a white person shouldn't speak up about certain things (like racism) because of their race.

Malcolm, from Richmond, 9th grade History student from Open High:
1. Half of his class volunteered to come on a non-required field trip; the other half didn't want to deal with weather. He came because he was curious, and said he sees SCV folks as "kind of crazy."
2. Sees white folks as the cause of racism, therefore also part of solution.