NORFOLK — The fate of the city’s “Johnny Reb” Confederate memorial is now in the hands of Attorney General Mark Herring.
City council Tuesday night voted unanimously to adopt a resolution to move the monument, which currently sits just blocks from city hall to Elmwood Cemetery. Organizers had planned to deliver a petition for removal with over 1,500 signatures in order to sway several council members who were understood to be undecided.
The move is not immediately effective due to a state prohibition on removing war memorials, including those from the Civil War representing either side. Council members seemed hopeful that a now-pending decision by Herring would result in an approval. Mayor Kenny Alexander said the body had requested the attorney general expedite his ruling on the issue.
“It expresses the council’s desire to relocate it, but delays doing so until after the attorney general has had the opportunity to address the ambiguities in the statute,” city attorney Bernard Pishko clarified.
Just over 850 residents had signed the physical version of the petition which sought to replace it with some form of public art. More than 1,500 people signed the online version. Many of those there to advocate for moving the monument had spent much of the past week collecting signatures outside of public areas including libraries and shopping centers.
At the start of the meeting, the organizers were optimistic that they’d be able to sway the opinions of three undecided members: Thomas Smigiel, Theresa Whibley and Mamie Johnson. Councilman Paul Riddick was also undecided on the issue, though the group seemed to be in agreement that they wouldn’t be able to change his mind. In a surprise move, he voted in line with the other three.
“This is an impressive first step that should be commended,” Kat Martin, an organizer with the Take It Down: Norfolk group, wrote in a text message. “However, it is not the end of the line for the monument nor for the oppression and inequality that it represents. We hope that this work will continue and we hope that it leaves the realm of the symbolic and into the realm of action.”
“This is just the beginning of a bridge between white and black America. Let us as the new generation begin to take the lead on making our community one,” she added.
The move caught the group of activists, who had arrived early to sign up for public comment spots on the docket, off guard. Instead of urging a decision, many of them spent their allotted time thanking the council and echoing their calls for unity.
Jeff Hewitt, a local writer and poet, delivered his original remarks in a speech intensely critical of Confederate imagery. Watch it below.
Several speakers questioned the usefulness of removing the concrete obelisk, when other, more systemic problems seemed more urgent. Only one, however, evoked audible groans from the predominantly pro-removal audience.
Danny Lee Ginn, a frequent speaker at council meetings who once aggravated Councilman Riddick so much that he threatened him, suggested, that the city should consider removing all monuments, starting with the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on Church Street, in order to become a unified city.
“In looking at the past and hate, I also remember the civil rights movement, where cities were burnt down, there was massive looting, there was the Black Panthers which advocated the death of white Americans,” he said. “It was a very violent time in our history. A lot of people don’t want to go back, don’t want to remember that.”
In his remarks before the vote, Mayor Alexander said that such monuments had become “lightning rods of controversy and tragedy,” especially after recent events in Charlottesville. He stopped short of saying anything definitively negative about it, however, including any mention of its association with the Jim Crow era, a common pro-removal talking point. Instead, he compared it to the memorial to black Union soldiers located in West Point Cemetery.
“It is therefore fitting and proper for these monuments to share similar locations and to be on equal footing — that being in cemeteries wherein lie the remains of Civil War veterans,” he read from a prepared statement. “The monuments speak to a moment in our nation’s history … neither should be destroyed. Both should remain in public setting. I believe both monuments have the power to teach and inform future generations who and what we were.”
Before becoming her vote, Angelia Williams Graves thanked the mayor for submitting the resolution.
“I think it’s very timely,” she said, connected to the meeting via telephone. “I think that it will … help to begin to heal our city as well as continue conversations about our past because we can’t forget our past. If we do then we’re doomed to repeat it again.”
No decision has been made with regard to what might replace the monument. The petition’s call to replace it with public art, the organizers argue, could potentially help offset the cost of removal. Hewitt suggested a memorial for the “Norfolk 17,” a group of black students who fought to integrate city schools in 1958 following the Brown v. Board ruling.
Although Herring hasn’t said when he’ll make a decision, proponents are hopeful that a Democratic attorney general will side with them.
“I agree with Gov. McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Northam that this is the time for each community to engage in an inclusive conversation on the future of its Confederate statues and monuments,” Herring said in a statement released last week. “In my opinion, these statues should be relocated to museums or removed. Gov. McAuliffe said it well: these symbols are a barrier to progress, inclusion, and equality in Virginia.”
Several attendees in the pro-removal camp said that they expect to see action regardless of whether Herring approves.
“It’s the first step and we’ve got more steps to go,” local activist Dave Potvin said after the meeting. “If the council doesn’t do it on their own — I think they’ll keep marching down this road — we’ll push them and we’ll make them do it. And if they run into obstacles I expect them to break through those obstacles.”