Some Peoples’ Pain Matters More than Others’

Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Ave. Photo credit: Jay Paul/Reuters.

by Catesby Leigh

After George Floyd’s fatally brutal arrest, dozens of Confederate monuments were banished from civic settings throughout the South. And their ranks were further thinned last weekend, when Charlottesville’s equestrian statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were finally hoisted off their pedestals after a prolonged legal battle.

But the fate of what may be the most important Confederate statue of all has yet to be determined. The magnificent equestrian tribute to Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue — the old Confederate capital’s principal venue for Lost Cause commemoration — is still standing. Its majestically rusticated granite pedestal, 40 feet tall, was hideously defaced with obscenity-laced graffiti during last year’s Black Lives Matter–Antifa agitation. Rings of graffitied jersey barriers and chain-link fencing eight feet high now gird the monument, situated on a turfed circle 200 feet wide. Despite some splashes of paint, the bronze statue itself appears undamaged, and its handsome silhouette, when viewed from a distance, is unimpaired.

Along with the conversion of Lee Circle into an anarchist’s playground, last year’s vandalization and removal of the other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue was one of the more widely publicized episodes of the Floyd protests. (A dozen statues or landmarks with Confederate associations came down in the city as a whole.) The avenue’s Stonewall, J. E. B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis are gone; only their pedestals — and Davis’s elaborate architectural setting — remain. But unlike those statues, the Lee is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia rather than the city of Richmond.

Alongside the pain that a monument may cause some citizens is the pain that its removal would cause others.

In separate suits before the state’s supreme court, five residents of the Monument Avenue historic district and a great-grandson of donors of the land for the Lee equestrian argue that Governor Ralph Northam, who ordered its removal shortly after the protests got underway, lacks the authority to do so. (Northam’s racial consciousness was raised a couple of years ago after a photo of a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan attire was found on his medical-school yearbook page.) The plaintiffs have a strong case, but in Virginia’s toxic political climate, that probably won’t matter much. The court is expected to rule later this month or in August.

Confederate monuments wound up in the dock largely thanks to a tiny contingent of far-right militants and psychopaths — starting with Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Scrutiny of Richmond’s intensified two years later, after a white nationalist who came to Charlottesville to demonstrate against a municipal council vote to remove the town’s Lee statue drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one. Many have used these incidents, along with Floyd’s killing, to excoriate any notion that Confederate monuments are entitled to their historic presence in the South’s public realm. Of course, very few of those who disagree have the slightest use for Roof or obscure groupuscules such as the Loyal White Knights.

Skip back a generation. In 1997, the mile-long stretch of Monument Avenue with the four Confederate statues was designated a National Historic Landmark for reasons having nothing to do with advocating white supremacy and everything to do with culture and history. In an excellent survey of the world’s finest thoroughfares, Great Streets, published four years earlier, Berkeley urban-planning professor Allan B. Jacobs devoted seven handsomely illustrated pages of high praise to Monument Avenue, mentioning the Lost Cause in passing as a vestigial thematic backdrop on a superb residential boulevard. He observed groups of people, blacks and whites together, taking Sunday strolls along the avenue. Jacobs’s study, in turn, appeared a few years after the screening of Ken Burns’s engrossing five-part documentary The Civil War (1990), which presented a range of perspectives on the conflict, very much including African-American perspectives. The liberal intellectual climate of those years is a far cry from what we’re seeing now. Those who think the fanatical vandalism the nation witnessed in 2020, with everyone from Columbus to Lincoln becoming fair game, points to progress are seriously deluded.

The BLM-Antifa statuary rampage in Richmond and its indulgence by political leaders such as Northam and the city’s mayor, Levar Stoney, whose statuary removals were almost certainly illegal, testifies to the increasingly authoritarian intolerance of the American Left. Its focus on the symbolic purging of the nation’s public realm is all about power, not justice, and it completely ignores the intractable problems confronting the African-American underclass.

Those problems stand out in high relief in Richmond, half of whose inhabitants are black. Virginia Standards of Learning test results for 2018–19 (the most recent year for which figures are available) showed 50% of the River City’s black public-school students failing in reading and math, a far higher failure rate than white students’. Eighty-four percent of 2019 births of black babies were out of wedlock. Dismal conditions prevail in the city’s public housing. Fatal and nonfatal shootings in black neighborhoods have surged over the past year, while numerous Richmond police officers have left the force in the wake of Stoney’s weak response to the BLM disorders. Taking Confederate statues down has done, and will do, nothing to improve the situation.


In 1890, the year the Lee monument was completed, Virginia’s governor, acting with the state legislature’s authorization, signed a deed that included the state’s “guarantee that she will hold [the Lee] statue and pedestal and circle of ground perpetually sacred to the monumental purpose to which they have been devoted and that she will faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.” Parties to the deed included the Lee Monument Association, which no longer exists, and — crucially — the family that donated the land for the monument.

The state contends it has a right to remove the statue, pursuant to Northam’s June 2020 removal order, thanks to a budget amendment that annulled the 1890 deed and was passed by the legislature months later. A Richmond circuit-court judge accepted this argument in ruling in favor of the monument’s removal last October. The plaintiffs maintain that the budget amendment is unconstitutional. In addressing the donor descendant’s claim that the state is attempting to dissolve, without legal justification, the covenant protecting the statue and the property easement he inherited, Virginia solicitor general Toby J. Heytens played the race card during oral argument before the state supreme court last month. “No court has ever recognized a personal inheritable right to dictate the content of core government speech about a matter of racial equality and this court should not be the first one ever to do so,” Heytens declared.

The drift of Heytens’s argument was that the Lee monument “speaks” in favor of racism — a cynical caricature of the statue’s honorific intent — and that to defend its retention is to advocate racism. This was a shot across the court’s bow. Its members have been duly warned that they can expect to be, and will deserve to be, targets of BLM and Antifa agitation if they don’t get with the statuary purgation program. Heytens’s argument also opens the door to removal of any Virginia monument to any historic figure whose racial views can be deemed to fall short of contemporary norms. It is disconcerting, to put it mildly, that not one of the justices responded to his outrageous declaration.

All too likely to be buried by the current political wisdom is the elementary fact that, for all its terrible shortcomings, the Old South imposed demanding standards of personal honor, courage, and self-sacrifice on its guardians. If they hadn’t been recognized as signal exponents of those virtues, Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and Davis would never have been commemorated on Monument Avenue. Of course, the story doesn’t end there. The story is complex. The problem is that complexity is anathema to the woke — who, not unlike the Klansmen of yore, inhabit a hopelessly simplistic, ideologically shriveled universe. It would be folly not to realize that intimidation is an essential part of their playbook, too. Certainly Toby Heytens does.

The searing injustices of the past are part of the South’s identity. The same goes for the region’s distinctive grandeur. For both reasons, eliminating a large portion of Richmond’s monumental heritage was a really bad idea. It’s also a really bad idea — especially in a state where opinions on the wisdom of retaining or removing Confederate monuments are closely divided — to focus on the pain that monuments cause some citizens while ignoring the pain their removal would cause others, as Patrick M. McSweeney, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Lee monument case, has noted. The Orwellian upshot is that some people’s pain matters more than others’. The best remedy in such situations is to focus on adding to, rather than subtracting from, a locale’s monumental heritage.

Once these lessons have sunk in, perhaps the River City can start thinking about how best to remedy the senseless damage to its public realm that was inflicted in the annus horribilis of 2020.

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C. This essay, published originally at National Review, has been republished here with the author’s permission.

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24 responses to “Some Peoples’ Pain Matters More than Others’”

  1. The National Review’s headline was, “Is Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Statue Next?” I was so struck by the Patrick McSweeney quote in the penultimate paragraph that I used it as the header for the post. I think it raises a profound philosophical question.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    The people of any given locality should have the right to decide what iconography is displayed (on public property) in that locality. I see no evidence to indicate that the majority of residents of the City of Richmond want the statue on display. Therefore, it seems reasonable to me to remove it.

    I am of the opinion that many of the Confederate statues were erected not to honor the dimming memory of the US Civil War but as monuments to the growing Jim Crow movement in the south. To understand the statues one should review the history of Jim Crow more closely than even the history of the US Civil War.

    1. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      “I see no evidence to indicate that the majority of residents of the City of Richmond want the statue on display.”

      Based on what?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Looking at the voting history of the citizens of Richmond as well as the policies upheld by the politicians whom they elect.

        A city-wide referendum on the statues would have been the best approach. However, I strongly suspect that such a referendum would have overwhelmingly supported removing the statues.

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Absence of a tiki torch parade?

        1. Packer Fan Avatar
          Packer Fan

          Is this a picture of a CHAZ rally in Seattle?

    2. Matt Adams Avatar
      Matt Adams

      Very true, but if the manner in which they were removed runs afoul of the Law or Laws which it was erected under there has to be a method of redress.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Agreed on the law. I think the General Assembly should leave local matters to the localities. One step in that direction would be to change the law to allow localities to put up or remove statues on public spaces within their borders.

        I never have understood why the political elite in Richmond have such an obsession with telling localities what they can and can’t do.

        Of course, if some locality wanted to buy that Lee statue and put it up in their town square … well, that would be their business.

        1. Matt Adams Avatar
          Matt Adams

          “My body, my choice” only applies to specific items, well that’s at least what’s demonstrated.

          When people realize that no matter how noble the cause, ideal or notion of your causes it, it’s not grounds to break the law they will understand we will no longer spiral towards a pure “democracy”.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          Isn’t that exactly what the Va GA did?

        3. CJBova Avatar

          That’s what they did last year to §15.2-1812. Memorials for war veterans when they repealed Chapter 119 of the Acts of Assembly of 1890, relating to war memorials for veterans.

          There can be an advisory referendum, but the locality can still do what it wants if it’s on public property.

    3. Any definitive study of the “history of Jim Crow” must begin with the factual history set out in straightforward manner by Eric Foner here:
      And for more challenging, Richmond-specific reading, by Ben Campbell here:

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    There is a lot of “dark” Art , “good” , superb art of truly awful things that most find more disturbing than “art”. It will never be destroyed, and should not be and, in fact,is highly valued, but it’s simply not appropriate to display it in public venues because it is disturbing to others and we do not impose it on them. That art is still accessible to those that want to go see it and able to be avoided by those who don’t.

    Do we want (for instance) acts of violence embodied in artwork to be displayed in public venues because they are legitimate “art”?

    How about “art” of significant leaders who committed violent acts on others, like Stalin or Hitler or in our own country those who killed fellow Americans over the right to enslave people?

    We want such memorials in public squares where the sons and daughters of those enslaved and killed now walk because to not have them displayed will cause “pain” to those who want it displayed anyhow, no matter how it affects others because it’s “art”?

    Pretty weak tea, but still being brewed.

    1. CJBova Avatar

      Ever hear of this?

      [Wikipedia] Guernica is a large 1937 oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.[1][2] It is one of his best-known works, regarded by many art critics as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history.[3] It is exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.

      The grey, black, and white painting, which is 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) across, portrays the suffering of humans and ungulates wrought by violence and chaos. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, screaming women, death, dismemberment, and flames.

      Picasso painted Guernica at his home in Paris in response to the 26 April 1937, bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain which was bombed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion, Guernica was exhibited at the Spanish display at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, and then at other venues around the world. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief.[5] The painting soon became famous and widely acclaimed, and it helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I have now. Thanks. There’s still a difference between works of art shown in museums and in books and works of art displayed in public venues.

        Public venues are places where the art should have wide appeal that suits most that use that place. It ought not be something that is something that appeals to some and disturbs others. IMHO.

        And that criteria by no means rules out most art – on the contrary – there is a lot of art that has such appeal.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Lampshades in Germany? Tough to let those tattoos go to waste.

      Monday already?

      1. CJBova Avatar

        There seems to be no limit to how disgusting you’ll be or low you’ll stoop.

    3. tmtfairfax Avatar

      And what about the Senator from Hawaii and the former Senator from California who attempted to have the Senate act in an unconstitutional manner by imposing a religious test on a judicial nominee? If bigotry is wrong, bigotry is wrong.

  4. It would be interesting to learn of the lost revenue from tourists no long coming to Richmond. Besides both Northerners and Southerners, I know of many foreigners who traveled to the US and Virginia specifically to visit battlefields, museums, libraries, and monuments of the war — and spent days if not a full week spending money in Richmond. Wonder how many BLM/Antifa tourists are coming into town with an open wallet?

  5. Mr. Leigh quotes the Solicitor General as saying to the (Va.) Supreme Court, “No court has ever recognized a personal inheritable right to dictate the content of core government speech about a matter of racial equality.” As a legal matter, I daresay that statement is true even if the last six words are omitted.

    As for the merits, we should address Jim B’s “profound philosophical question.” Seems to me this is essentially the same question as whether affirmative action policies are appropriate — in other words, can racial discrimination be an explicit criterion for undoing the effects of racial discrimination? Whether your answer is yes or no, a simplistic “any explicit consideration of race is wrong” or an equally simplistic “of course race must be explicitly considered when undoing racial bias,” there are many factors which have to be balanced. What will lead fastest to reasonable racial harmony? Is economic equity also the goal? Reparations? Are the Confederate statues primarily memorials to the Lost Cause and markers of White supremacy; or memorials to the dead and other losses of a tragic war; or historical artifacts from a different time with a different memory, offensive no longer except to those who seek to manipulate opinion; or merely intrinsically worthy art and architecture divorced from past meanings by the passage of time and several generations? Are the economic effects of tourism on the City worth any compromise, here? Should illegal and destructive vandalism be rewarded the way it was? What about the feelings of the City neighborhood, indeed the entire City, whose artistic integrity and heritage is at stake?

    We have discussed all this many times in this forum, as well as the flawed and polarizing protests and responses thus far. The practical fact now is that the statues, but for General Lee, are down, and safer in storage than not (however extra-legal the process that got them there). Lee himself did not seek the glorification he received after his death; he would probably prefer to be in storage with his comrades-in-arms rather than remain the focus of the hostility and vitriol seen this past year. Let this debate play out elsewhere than in the City’s avenues. A more harmonious future time can always decide to restore the statues — along with contextualization and parodies and whatever price the future time deems appropriate — but in the meanwhile, artistic merit alone cannot thwart these forces.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Some Peoples’ Pain Is More than Others’

    You Republicans are going to ride these bronze ponies into the sunset.

  7. WayneS Avatar

    No matter what else he did during his long and distinguished career, Berkeley urban-planning professor Allan B. Jacobs must be judged solely on his grossly insensitive write-up of Richmond’s Civil War monuments in his book Great Streets. He no doubt caused deep and permanent psychological wounds to large numbers of vulnerable and defenseless people. His lack of cultural awareness and his abject racism are simply inexcusable…

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    The damage is done. Richmond can kiss much of the Civil War tourism goodbye. To find Dixie in Virginia you will have to go to other places. Dixie is still here…just not in Richmond.

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