The statue of American Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been the subject of national debate for years, with many claiming that the monument glorified a racist figure. On Saturday, the monument was removed, effectively bringing an end to a series of arduous and tense conversations that had sometimes exploded publicly.
Activists had long been working to have the movement removed. A renewed push to take it down began in the wake of the first Black Lives Matter protests in 2014. Following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, as monuments around the U.S. to problematic people fell, debate over the Lee statue—and others like it in cities like Richmond and New Orleans—suddenly became a topic of national attention once more.
In 2016, high school student Zyahna Bryant started a petition for the statue’s removal that collected hundreds of signatures. Charlottesville’s city council decided to have the statue removed in early 2017. The decision triggered a lawsuit against the city by multiple plaintiffs who argued that hauling the sculpture away violated a state law protecting war memorials.
In response to the city council’s decision, the Unite the Right rally descended upon Charlottesville in August 2017, bringing together neo-Nazis and other alt-right groups from around the country. It was the largest gathering of white supremacists the country had seen in years.
Protestors, led by popular white nationalist figures such as Richard Spencer, claimed the removal of the statue was an erasure of their heritage and censorship, and that it was anti-white. The rally descended into further chaos when James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately drove his car into counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others.
In light of the violent events, Charlottesville officials announced last week that the statue would be taken down just a day after it was hoisted away from its platform. At the ceremony, which was mostly peaceful aside from a few hecklers, Bryant made a statement alongside Mayor Nikuyah Walker before the statue’s removal began. “My work here is done,” she tweeted after the removal took place.