RICHMOND, VA. -- A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that became a rallying point for white supremacists and helped inspire their infamous 2017 rally in Charlottesville will be hoisted off its pedestal this weekend and sent to storage, officials announced Friday.
The Lee statue and another Confederate tribute nearby are both scheduled to be removed today, nearly four years after violence broke out at the "Unite the Right" rally. The chaos left 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer dead and sparked a national debate over racial equity, with former President Donald Trump saying there was "blame on both sides."
A coalition of activists issued a statement Friday celebrating the announcement. Because of litigation and changes to a state law dealing with war memorials, the city had been unable to act until now.
As long as the statues "remain standing in our downtown public spaces, they signal that our community tolerated white supremacy and the Lost Cause these generals fought for," the coalition called Take 'Em Down Cville [collective] said.
Preparations around the parks where the statues stand began Friday and included the installation of protective fencing. Designated public viewing areas were planned.
Only the statues of Lee and Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson will be removed for now, the city said. The stone bases of the monuments will be removed later.
The statues are perched in places of relative prominence in Charlottesville, a small, picturesque city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and home to the University of Virginia. Commissioned by a university graduate and erected in the 1920s, when Jim Crow laws were eroding the rights of Black citizens, the statues are just blocks apart.
The Charlottesville City Council voted in February 2017 to take down the Lee statue after mounting public pressure, including a petition started by a Black high school student, Zyahna Bryant.
A lawsuit was quickly filed, putting the city's plans on hold, and white supremacists seized on the issue.
First, they rallied by torchlight at the statue in May 2017, then a small group of Klansmen gathered in July, far outnumbered by peaceful protesters.
The issue reached a crescendo in August, when white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizers of the "Unite the Right" rally gathered in the city to defend the Lee statue and seize on the issue, meeting in what was the largest such gathering of extremists in at least a decade.
They brawled in the streets near the statue with anti-racist counterprotesters as police largely stood by and watched. The scenes of violence shocked the nation. A short time later, an avowed white supremacist and admirer of Adolf Hitler intentionally plowed his car into a crowd of people, killing Heyer and leaving others with life-altering injuries.
Trump's suggestion at a later news conference that there had been "very fine people, on both sides" led to a crush of criticism from Republicans, Democrats and business leaders.
Charlottesville continued to fight in court for the removal of the Lee statue and additionally voted to remove the Jackson figure. But a circuit court judge prevented the city from even shrouding the statues with tarps.
After Democrats took control of the General Assembly in the 2019 elections, the monument-protection law was rewritten in 2020. Since then, local governments across the state have removed statues that stood for a century or more.
Charlottesville, however, waited for the resolution of the lawsuit, which came in April, when the state's highest court sided with the city.
Since that ruling, the city government has been working its way through the requirements of the new law, including holding a public hearing and offering the statue to a museum or historical society. The offer period for Charlottesville's statues ended Thursday.
Ten responses have been received so far, the city said, and it remains open to "additional expressions of interest." Under the new law, the city has the final say in the statues' disposition.
The statues are to be stored in a secure location on city property until the City Council makes a final decision.
City officials have said they plan to redesign the park spaces "in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville."