Citizens Decry Mayor’s Plan to Put Confederate Statues ‘in Context’
By Jeremy Lazarus
Wire Service Correspondent
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Veteran NAACP activist Ora Lomax is still fuming over Richmond, Va. Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s plans for dealing with the stone and bronze figures that have been defining symbols of Richmond for generations — the statues of Confederate defenders of slavery that punctuate Monument Avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy.
A civil rights activist and NAACP stalwart for 60 years, Lomax is irked about the direction the mayor is taking when it comes to handling the statues she and many around the nation regard as symbols of hate, discrimination and bigotry. Unlike mayors in cities across the South who are pushing to have Confederate statues removed from public spaces, Mayor Stoney has announced the creation of a commission to “put the statues in context,” while also rejecting any effort to remove the century-old figures.
“For some reason,” Ms. Lomax said, “he thinks those statues aren’t bothering anyone.“Well they bother me, and they bother anyone who knows their history,” said Lomax, who can remember being forced to ride in the back of GRTC buses because of her skin color and who was on the front lines of the 1960s battles to desegregate Richmond lunch counters and clothing stores. To her, the mayor is trying to straddle a fence, rather than doing what’s right. And that would be “to tear those statues down,” she said. “We need to get rid of them, not tolerate them.”
A longtime adviser and leader of NAACP youth programs, Lomax said every time she sees those statues, she is reminded of the battles she and others fought to break down barriers and pave the way for younger people like the 36-year-old mayor. She said that if Mayor Stoney wants to do something useful, he should revive the city’s Youth Services Commission and the Richmond Human Relations Commission — both now defunct — to empower citizens to do more to improve the city.
When Mayor Stoney announced on June 22 the Monument Avenue Commission and the names of its 10 members, he sought to preempt Lomax and other critics. In the announcement, he described the statues as “equal parts myth and deception … the ‘alternative facts’ of their time.” He said they were “a false narrative etched in stone and bronze to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery” and were designed “to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and re-assert a new era of White supremacy…These monuments have become a default endorsement of that shameful period,” he stated in establishing the commission to find ways to debunk the mystique of the statues and to explore the possibility of adding new statues that would add diversity.
“Right now, Arthur Ashe stands alone,” Mayor Stoney stated. “He is the only true champion on that street.” The commission includes co-chairs, Christy Coleman, chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum, who is African-American, and Gregg Kimball, director of education and outreach for the Library of Virginia, who is Caucasian. In a surprise move that ignored Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Union universities, he also named three University of Richmond professors to the panel, Dr. Edward L. Ayres, the university’s former president; Dr. Julian Hayter; and Dr. Lauranett L. Lee.
The commission members also include Stacy L. Burrs, a board member and former chairman and executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia; Coleen A. B. Rodriguez, a Monument Avenue resident who is active in preservation groups; and two members of City Council, Andreas Addison, 1st District, and Kim B. Gray, 2nd District.
While the mayor has received applause, with news of the commission distributed nationally by the Associated Press, many Richmonders view the move as a way for Mayor Stoney to avoid confrontation over the statues, and consider that he and the commission are on a Quixotic mission.
King Salim Khalfani, former executive director of the Virginia NAACP, was dismissive of the commission approach. There is “nothing that can be done to put those statues into ‘context.’ It’s ridiculous,” he said. A founding managing director of a new national advocacy group, Americans Resisting Minority and Ethnic Discrimination Inc., or ARMED, Khalfani has spent years advocating for Richmond to remove the statues. He said the mayor’s decision to roll out the commission is a ploy to divert attention from the city’s more serious challenges, including teen violence in the city and multiple problems within the city’s public schools.
“New Orleans is taking down these symbols of slavery and racism,” Khalfani said. “That’s what Richmond needs to do. I have been saying that for years.”
Former City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin was equally acerbic in his criticism. He said no other country would tolerate statues to losers and traitors. He said the first thing people did after American troops took Baghdad in 2003 during the Iraq war was to pull down the statues of overthrown dictator Saddam Hussein. In Germany after World War II, pictures, statues and other symbols of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis were eradicated, he said, and “it is still illegal to put any Nazi iconography in a public space…That’s what should happen in this city,” he said. “But we have these statues here without any change. We’re in the 21st century, and there is still no statement by the city to disavow these statues and their clear intent to glorify the Confederacy and the people who fought to maintain slavery.”
El-Amin agreed with Khalfani that Richmond needs the kind of leadership that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has shown in removing four Confederate monuments in that city. During his tenure on the council, El-Amin said he proposed that the statues be taken down, but could not win the support of then-Mayor Tim Kaine and other colleagues. That’s why El-Amin said he founded the Richmond Slave Trail Commission. He said he “wanted to raise attention to the level of our victimization and in so doing, reduce the level of glorification of those who victimized us.”