Work was under way on Saturday morning to remove a statue to a Confederate general that helped spark a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
The small Virginia city said the equestrian statue of Gen Robert E Lee and a nearby statue of Gen Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would be removed to storage. Designated public viewing areas for the removals had been established.
A crane was moved into place and workers were preparing as the sun came up first to hoist Lee away. Just after 8am local time, the statue of the man on his horse was hoisted slowly off its plinth.
Charlottesville’s mayor, Nikuyah Walker, gave a speech in front of public and media as the lifting equipment was moved into position.
“Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia, and America grapple with the sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain,”she said.
Lee led Confederate forces during the American civil war, which the Confederacy fought between 1861 and 1865 in an attempt to maintain slavery. Jackson rose to fame in the first years of the conflict before dying of pneumonia after being mistakenly shot by his own men.
The Jackson statue was erected in 1921 and Lee in 1924, nearly 60 years after the war ended in the total defeat of the Confederacy but was followed an era of official racial segregation across southern states.
The statues will be toppled more than five years after calls for their removal began to gain momentum. In 2016, Zyahna Bryant, then a 16-year-old high-school student, was given an assignment that asked her to describe something she could change. She started a petition to remove the statue of Lee.
In response, the city council set up a commission on race, memorials and public Spaces. In February 2017 the council voted for removal, angering white supremacist groups.© Provided by The Guardian Mayor Nikuyah Walker speaks ahead of the city’s removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
The Lee statue became a rallying point for such extremists, culminating in a “Unite the Right” rally in August that year. Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists congregated in Charlottesville to defend the Lee statue and a counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed. A white supremacist was convicted of her murder.
Because of litigation and changes to a state law, the city was unable to act before holding public hearings and offering the statue to any museum, historical society or battlefield. This week, the city said it had received 10 such expressions of interest, “six out-of-state and four in-state that are all under review”.
Take ’Em Down CVille, a group that campaigns for racial justice, applauded news of the planned removal.
“The messages from the public were moving and powerful,” it said. “No one believes that removing the statues will end white supremacy but this is an important step – and one long past due.”
Preparations included the installation of fencing, the city said, adding that both statues would be stored in a secure location on city property until the council reaches a decision on their relocation.
The removal follows years of contention, community anguish and litigation. A long, winding legal fight coupled with changes in a state law that protected war memorials had held up the removal for years.
Saturday’s actions came almost four years after violence erupted at the infamous “Unite the Right” extremist rally. After a torchlit march and racist chanting, rightwingers including members of known white supremacy groups clashed violently with counter-protesters, culminating in Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester, being murdered when she was mown down by a car driven into a demonstration.
The crisis sparked a national debate over racial equity and the then president, Donald Trump, inflamed the conflict by insisting there was “blame on both sides” of the issue in Charlottesville over that bloody weekend.
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