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Virginia removes Robert E. Lee statue from U.S. Capitol after 111 years

Symbolic Justice
CBS Reports presents "Speaking Frankly | Symbolic Justice" 25:37

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced Monday that a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee has been removed from the U.S. Capitol building after representing the state there for 111 years. 

"We should all be proud of this important step forward for our Commonwealth and our country," Northam said in a statement. "The Confederacy is a symbol of Virginia's racist and divisive history, and it is past time we tell our story with images of perseverance, diversity, and inclusion." 

Robert E. Lee's statue was removed from the U.S. Capitol Sunday night.  Jack Mayer/Office of Governor Northam

A commission created to study the removal and replacement of the statue voted unanimously last week to take it down from the National Statuary Hall Collection in the Capitol, where each state has two statues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed its removal in a statement, saying "there is no room for celebrating the bigotry of the Confederacy in the Capitol or any place of honor in our country." 

The Robert E. Lee statue had represented Virginia along with one of George Washington since 1909. 

Virginia's statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from the U.S. Capitol overnight. Jack Mayer/Office of Governor Northam

The commission voted to replace it with a statue of Virginia civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns. As a 16-year-old, she led a student walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School in 1951, protesting the overcrowded and inferior conditions of the all-Black school compared to those of White students at nearby Farmville High School. The protest got the attention of the NAACP, who took up her cause and filed a lawsuit that would later become one of the five cases reviewed by the Supreme Court in the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education

"I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns' contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did," Northam said. 

A monumental reckoning 09:00

Virginia's General Assembly still has to approve the replacement before a sculptor can be commissioned. Northam introduced a budget the includes $500,000 to replace the statue. 

The removal comes as another Robert E. Lee statue, on Monument Avenue in Richmond, remains in place, but a judge ruled last month that the state can remove it. 

Dozens of statues of Confederate leaders as well as Christopher Columbus have been taken down around the country since late spring, when protests over the death of George Floyd focused new attention on the troubling symbolism of such monuments.

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