Virginia has been rocked to its core with multiple revelations of its top politicians’ racist past. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have both admitted to wearing blackface, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was revealed to have edited an obscenely racist yearbook full of blackface images.
But as questions swirl about these politicians’ future, former FBI Director James Comey cautions everyone in a Washington Post op-ed to remember that these are not isolated issues, but a symptom of Virginia’s painful and divisive past.
“The reporters hurrying to the state capital to cover this important story about a poorly understood tool of white oppression are literally rushing past much larger and more powerful symbols of that oppression — symbols born of a similar desire to keep black people down,” writes Comey. Those symbols are the Confederate monuments that dot Virginia’s cities, and nowhere are they more prevalent than in the state capital of Richmond, where the Confederacy itself was once headquartered.
“The Confederate statues of Richmond’s Monument Avenue weren’t erected to honor the service of brave warriors,” Comey writes. “Those soldiers had been dead for decades before the statues went up. No, the statues were put up by white people, beginning in the 1890s, to remind black people that, despite all that nonsense of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as the so-called Reconstruction, we are back, and you are back down. The towering likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson weren’t put up to celebrate history or heritage; they were put up as a message: The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution aren’t going to help you black folks because the South has risen from that humiliation. Jim Crow — a name rooted in blackface mockery — is king.”
“If you doubt that well-documented history — if you are tempted to buy the ‘heritage, not hate’ rhetoric — ask yourself this question: ‘Where are the statues of James Longstreet?'” Comey continued. “Remember: Longstreet was Lee’s most trusted general, his second-in-command, his ‘Old War Horse.’ Longstreet was a brave and talented warrior for the Confederacy from beginning to end. But there aren’t any Longstreet statues in Richmond — and there weren’t any at all until 1998, at Gettysburg. That’s because his service to the United States continued after the Civil War, and he did something inconsistent with the purpose of the statues, and of blackface: He treated African Americans as citizens of the United States. Longstreet agreed to serve his reunified country, joined Lincoln’s Republican Party and helped Grant protect the rights of newly freed black Americans.”
Comey is right — Confederate monuments were erected primarily during both the rise of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, as a warning to black citizens that they should not be considered equals. And the passion with which white nationalist groups defend these statues, which led to the deadly riots in Charlottesville two years ago, are painful proof of this.
“If Virginia’s leaders want to atone for a troubling legacy, changing state law so Richmond’s statues no longer taunt the progress of our country would be a good place to start,” concluded Comey. “Expressing bipartisan horror at blackface photos is essential, but removing the statues would show all of America that Virginia really has changed.”