Richmond: Past and Present Confronted

Jul 17, 2015

Those who say Virginia—and Richmond—are still fighting the Civil War need only look at current state policy changes and debates over the Confederate flag and monuments to back up their claims. 

And now while the home of the Confederacy and former slave-trading hub will soon be home to one of the most watched sporting events in the world, some say that as the country discusses racial diversity and equality, the event's organizers will be promoting and embracing the ugliest chapter in American history.  

Roughly 450,000 visitors will travel to Richmond for the UCI Road World Cycling Championship, which 300 million people will watch on TV worldwide. The cycling route runs through scenic Richmond, including Monument Avenue with its statues of Confederate leaders. But the organization “Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality” wants to change that route.  Spokesman Phil Wilayto says if not, the nation’s greatest embarrassment will take center stage.

"These statues were put up specifically to say, 'The war was a good thing, the Confederacy was a good thing, the people who led the fight in the Confederacy were heroes.' That's a distortion."

But Wilayto also says that just like South Carolina's Confederate flag, the Rebel statues should come down.
"That particular statue is owned by the city of Richmond which makes it a government sponsored display of the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia which is what the current discussion is about. So if it should come off license plates what is this statue doing on a public street, maintained by the city of Richmond with our tax dollars?"

The Defenders’ Anna Edwards says she understands that these symbols represent heritage for some, but:

"What I wold most appreciate, I think from the perspective of people who are not black or who don't share that perspective, is that they recognize that while they can honor their grandfathers and honor their service to their country, they can separate that from what that fight was about--for what this stood for. It is a racist symbol. There is no escaping that."

She says the flags and monuments belong in a museum. But Frank Earnest, a past Commander for the Virginia Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, says this sets a bad precedent of removing anyone or anything that some find offensive. He says while he's a proud American, more travesties occurred under the U.S. flag—including slavery.

"Why was the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed by the United States of America--- why was that not the 1866 Civil Rights Act? Anything that's been denied to African Americans of particular or any minorities between 1865 and now was denied by the United States government."

He says emotional decisions are being made without knowledge of history, origins, and feedback by all who are affected.

"We can understand why everyone talks about diversity and say let's all come to the table like you say and explain your position or what it means to you plus they're saying, 'We want everyone at the table except those Confederates. We've already made up our minds who they are, what their symbol means, and we're done, that's it, no conversation."'

Earnest says the Sons oppose the use of the battle flag as a symbol of hate.  He says hate groups have also used religious and other symbols to spew vitriol.  He adds that the SCV often takes part in community projects that promote diversity—where some people learn the flag’s full history for the first time.   

Governor McAuliffe stands by his order to remove the flag from license plates, but says he offered a compromise.

"We've reached out to the Sons of the Confederacy and said, 'We'll give you two to three weeks, redesign the plates, put a cap on or whatever you want but not the flag.' They haven't responded yet so we'll do what we have to do and in the next two months, we will have all the plates returned to us or they'll become invalid plates."

But as for those who seek a new race route and removal of the monuments:

"That's part of this history of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we are the capital of the Confederacy, that is part of the history. And we should leave the monuments where they are. We should not change the race."

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones agrees and says while he finds many Confederate tributes offensive, erasing history is not the way to go.

"If we have energy to do something, we should be doing something about helping people today. And so I think that the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue is a good start and I think we need to do more of that."

And he says the conversation needs balance.

"So that we allow people who want to honor monuments to do that but we ought to have monuments out there to Maggie Walker, we ought to have monuments to great black leaders who went through slavery but survived it."

But Edwards wonders why the nearby Arthur Ashe statue is NOT part of the current race route. Earnest says the SCV empathizes with those who are distraught by symbols used by oppressive groups—but when the government stifles his members’ voices, it makes them more resistant to change and compromise. In fact, the Sons and the state will square off in court over the license plates this month.