A statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee has been taken down in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, nearly four years after white supremacist protests over plans to remove it led to clashes in which a woman was killed.
Shortly after the removal of the Lee statue, a statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was also removed from its base in another city park. Onlookers who had gathered hours earlier cheered as the statues were loaded onto trucks and driven away.
Spectators by the dozens lined the blocks surrounding the park, and a cheer went up as the Lee statue was lifted off the pedestal. There was a visible police presence, with streets blocked off to vehicular traffic by fencing and heavy trucks.
“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,” Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said as the crane neared the monument.
Statues honouring leaders of the pro-slavery Confederate side in the American Civil War have become a focus of protests against racism in recent years.
The college town’s planned removal of the Lee statue in 2017 prompted a rally by white supremacists that turned deadly when a self-described neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd and killed a counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Weeks later the Charlottesville city council unanimously ordered the Jackson statue to be removed.
Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallagher said the peaceful scene as the statues were removed on Saturday – a sharp contrast from what occurred in Charlottesville four years ago – “is a victory … for Charlottesville and a victory for people who have been really campaigning”.
“Things went on very smoothly today and the City of Charlottesville, I think, taking a significant step forward,” Gallagher reported.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks far-right and white supremacist groups in the US, said last month that since a deadly 2015 attack on a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, “333 symbols to white supremacy have come down” across the country.
But “over 2,000 symbols of hate still stand”, the group said.
‘Long time coming’
Jotaka Eaddy, CEO of consulting firm Full Circle Strategies, said Confederate monuments are “a symbol of white supremacy and racism”.
“It has been a long time coming for all of these statues to come down, particularly in Charlottesville,” Eaddy told Al Jazeera on Saturday, calling the removal of the Lee and Jackson statues “a step in the right direction”.
Citizens including the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued Charlottesville over the removal plans. In April, Virginia’s highest court ruled the city could remove both Confederate statues, overturning a state Circuit Court decision that had upheld the citizen lawsuit.
Charlottesville will keep the statues in storage until it makes a final decision about what to do with them, officials said in a statement on Friday.
Kristin Szakos, a former Charlottesville city council member who watched the statues’ removal, said that “folks in this community have been trying to get these statues down for a hundred years”.
She added: “I think that we’re finally ready to be a community that doesn’t telegraph through our public art that we are pretty fine with white supremacy.”
However, Eaddy at Full Circle Strategies said systemic racism continues to plague the country.
She pointed to a widespread effort to restrict voting rights in ways that disproportionately impact Black people in the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential elections, as well as attempts to ban critical race theory, as issues that must be addressed.
“The underbelly of that is racism and white supremacy and we have to root that out equally as much as we have to take down these symbols of hate and racism in our nation,” Eaddy told Al Jazeera.