Virginia Governor Discusses His Decision To Remove Confederate Monument
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
For 130 years, General Robert E. Lee has towered 60 feet over Richmond. Soon he will stand no more.
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ROBERT W LEE: I know that Robert E. Lee is rolling around in his grave, and I say let him roll.
MCCAMMON: That was Pastor Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the Confederate army commander, yesterday. He spoke in front of the statue of his uncle shortly after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered it removed as soon as possible. And Gov. Northam joins us now from Richmond. Thanks for being here.
RALPH NORTHAM: Sarah, thanks so much for having me today.
MCCAMMON: You've had more than a week of protests there in Richmond. On Monday night before the curfew, peaceful protesters were sprayed with tear gas right there at the statue of Robert E. Lee. Was that the moment you decided this monument has to come down?
NORTHAM: Sarah, we have been working on this probably for close to a year with our legal counsel, seeing, you know, if it was justified that, as the governor, we could take this statue down. So this had been in the works for a while. But, you know, to your point, the protests, the pain that I saw across not only Virginia but across this country - I'm a physician, as you know, and I recognize pain. And I just felt the time is now to start the healing process.
We've had 400 years of black oppression that started with slavery and then Jim Crow and then massive resistance, mass incarceration. And then this terrible tragedy in Minnesota just - it's a sign that black oppression exists today, just in a different form. And we as a society need to address it, and I felt it was the right time. And it was a historical day yesterday in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
MCCAMMON: There are those, of course, in Virginia, including some Republican members of the General Assembly, who are opposing the removal of this Confederate statue, saying doing so only inflames divisions. What's your response to that?
NORTHAM: Well, this statue is a symbol of oppression and divisiveness. And, you know, we're at a real - I think a crossroads in this country where we can go one way toward unity and bringing people back together or we can take the other route of more divisiveness. And I regret the messaging that has come out of Washington, but, you know, Virginia prides itself on diversity. It's one of our greatest strengths. We pride ourselves on being inclusive, and we want to welcome people to the Commonwealth of Virginia and especially to our capital city. And when one, you know, drives into the city and sees a six-story-tall statue of an individual that fought for slavery, it's just not acceptable anymore.
MCCAMMON: You, of course, had your own controversy last year stemming from that racist photo in your medical school yearbook. You apologized and promised to make racial justice a major focus of the rest of your time in office. How does this decision to remove this monument fit into that larger goal that you've set for your administration?
NORTHAM: Well, you know, I have learned so much in the past year and a half and listened to a lot of individuals around Virginia. But this isn't about me, Sarah. It's really about Virginia, and it's about Virginia being inclusive and welcoming. And we'll continue to make great progress in that regard.
MCCAMMON: You've mentioned that the Robert E. Lee statue that you've ordered to be removed belongs to the state of Virginia. Of course, there are other statues in Richmond that are under the city's jurisdiction, other Confederate statues. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is calling for removing those. Here's what he had to say yesterday.
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LEVAR STONEY: We have two pandemics in this country - COVID-19 and racism. One is six months old, the other 400 years old. Both are lethal, especially for black and brown people.
MCCAMMON: Gov. Northam, these protests are happening at a time when you and other governors have taken extensive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. We're seeing these large gatherings at this time. How do you balance the need to confront both of these challenges, what Mayor Stoney calls two pandemics, simultaneously?
NORTHAM: Well, Mayor Stoney is exactly right. He's a great leader. We're friends. One of the things, Sarah, that I have emphasized and encouraged the protesters is to continue to remember that we are in the middle of a pandemic. We had about 650 new cases in Virginia today. So I've encouraged them to continue their social distancing, their hand-washing. And I've also encouraged them to be tested, and we have fairly elaborate testing capabilities in Virginia now. And we're certainly going to reach out and make sure that those that perhaps may be at risk have the availability to have adequate testing.
MCCAMMON: And back to the Robert E. Lee statue, you said yesterday you want it removed as soon as possible. Could that be as soon as this weekend?
NORTHAM: Well, it's going to be in the next couple weeks. We're working with contractors. We certainly want to do it safely. And so as soon as they can get in and take it down, they will. And as you know, there are two parts to the statute, Sarah. The bronze portion of it, that will be removed and put into storage. And then we're going to have discussion in the near future of what to do with the pestle.
MCCAMMON: The base of the statue, which has, in a way, become a monument itself - I know protesters have gathered around it and have written messages on it.
NORTHAM: Yeah, so there are several options that we're discussing. But it will happen fairly quickly, and I believe the sooner the better.
MCCAMMON: Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, thanks for your time.
NORTHAM: Thanks so much, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.