Confederate statues fall as winds of change buffet American South

AFP , Friday 19 Jun 2020

Statue in USA
In this file photo taken on June 04, 2020 People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. (AFP)

Armed with a brush, Carolyn McCrea furiously scrubs the grey marble. Someone has written "WLM" -- "White Lives Matter" -- on the only statue of a black man on this avenue in Richmond, Virginia, and she intends to wash away the affront.

Such slogans are a rallying cry for those outraged by the explosion of support that the anti-racism, anti-police brutality "Black Lives Matter" movement has seen since May 25, when George Floyd became the latest in a long line of African Americans to be killed by white law enforcement.

The global civil unrest ignited by Floyd's death has left many Americans questioning their country's racist past -- with statues of white men who championed slavery in the spotlight, especially in places like Richmond.

The city was once the capital of the Confederacy, the 11 Southern states that fought the North over slavery.

The Civil War was "probably the nation's most traumatic experience," says Ryan K. Smith, associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"It was a cataclysmic event that ended up abolishing slavery which had been a foundational element of this country's economy and social relations."

Many white Southerners, he says, had been taught to valorize the Confederacy and even celebrate it as part of their identity.

But others have long questioned why a society which sought to oppress one race should be venerated, and Floyd's killing is proving a turning point.

In Richmond alone, three statues of men who fought for slavery and one of Christopher Columbus have been toppled by protesters since May 25.


Retaliatory and divisive

On the rainy morning that McCrea sees the WLM graffiti, a tense exchange takes place at the foot of the statue honoring legendary black tennis player Arthur Ashe, a native of Richmond.

A man with his face hidden by a scarf in the colors of the Stars and Stripes stops his car. Those nearby suspect him of being the one who vandalized the statue.

"He kept saying 'All lives matter,' he got very combative, angry," says Fatima Pashaei, 38.

"We couldn't just sit idly by and let (the statue) be defaced with something that seems to be retaliatory and divisive," says 35-year-old McCrea, who brought a brush from home to clean the monument.

"We have so much respect for Arthur Ashe and everything he stood for," she adds.

"It's so odd to have statues of people who were pro-slavery, and pro-keeping people down."


A redneck, but not racist

Others -- like Rick, a 58-year-old superintendent -- say they don't understand why statues representing what he calls "Southern heritage" should disappear from public space.

"I may be a redneck but I'm not a racist," he says -- "all lives matter, animals, dogs, whites, Spanish ... we all matter."

Nevertheless, change is in the wind.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced in early June that he had ordered the removal of the imposing statue of Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of the Confederate army.

His decision was immediately challenged in court, but activists are optimistic.

And Richmond City Council unanimously backed the removal of the rest of the statues.

In recent weeks several have been graffitied -- an explosion of color among the city's pretty houses and large, white magnolias.

Jay Lambert contemplates the square where Lee's statue stands.

Activists have turned it into a memorial for Floyd and other African Americans killed by police, with signs, slogans and flowers.

"It's a very important moment in history so we wanted to be part of it ... things that we've been wishing to happen we're starting to see before our eyes," says the 47-year-old network engineer.

The flow of visitors is continuous. Many bring their children, like Jennifer Dyson, accompanied by Lily and Clara, aged nine and six.

"I wanted my children to understand that not everyone is treated equal ... so when they grow up, they'll stand up for what's ok," she says.

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