RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/AP) — The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Thursday that the state can take down the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that became a symbol of racial injustice as it towered over Monument Avenue in the state’s capital for more than a century.
The decision came more than a year after Governor Ralph Northam directed the removal of the controversial Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond.
“I strongly believe we have to confront where we have been in order to shape where we are going,” Northam said last June. “Make no mistake, removing a symbol is important but it’s only a step. It doesn’t mean problems are solved, there are still monuments of inequities that exist in our commonwealth.
The removal of the statue was delayed after two lawsuits were filed by residents who attempted to block the removal of the 21-foot (6-meter) bronze equestrian sculpture, which shows Lee in military attire atop a 40-foot (12-meter) pedestal.
Separate lawsuits were filed by a group of residents who own property near the statue and a descendant of signatories to an 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and land they sit on to the state.
Descendant William Gregory argued that the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue. And five property owners argued that the governor is bound by an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly that accepted the statue and agreed to maintain it as a monument to Lee.
In two opinions, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments.
In their decision, the Supreme Court said, “we hold that the circuit court did not err in concluding that the purported restrictive covenants are unenforceable, that Governor Northam’s order to remove the Lee Monument did not violate the Constitution of Virginia, and that all of the Taylor Plaintiffs’ claims are without merit.”
Gov. Ralph Northam released the following statement after the court’s announcement:
“Today’s ruling is a tremendous win for the people of Virginia. Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value. When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years.
“I am grateful to Attorney General Mark Herring, my former counsel Rita Davis, and all those who worked so hard for this victory. This ruling is an important step towards moving the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Richmond forward into a more inclusive, just future. “Today it is clear—the largest Confederate monument in the South is coming down.”
The Virginia NAACP filed an amicus brief in the case earlier this year.
“Following the Virginia NAACP’s legal advocacy efforts, today’s court decision moves us one step closer to finally bringing down the Robert E. Lee monument for good,” said Robert N. Barnette, Jr., President of the Virginia NAACP. “I look forward to seeing the monument finally come down.”
While no date has been set for the statue’s removal, the Virginia Department of General Services said in a statement that they “are moving swiftly to remove the Robert E. Lee statue as directed by Governor Northam,” but the process is “extremely complex.”
They are expected to announce when the statue will be removed at a later date.
The full decision can be read online.