Like many states in the South, the Commonwealth of Virginia has yet to reckon with its Confederate past.
The state's lone Black statewide politician, Democrat Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, sat out of the January 18 Robert E. Lee Senate tribute in protest.
According to The Washington Post, Fairfax handed over his duties presiding over the 212th birthday tribute to Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George). As a descendant of enslaved Black people, he could not in good conscience celebrate Lee and his role in the Civil War-defining slavery.
“I believe there are certain people in history we should honor that way in the Senate ... and I don’t believe that he is one of them,” Fairfax said in an interview. “I think it’s very divisive to do what was done there, particularly in light of the history that we’re now commemorating — 400 years since the first enslaved Africans came to the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Fairfax alluded to the specter of the government shutdown and the racist policies of the Trump administration looming over a divided nation. The Roanoke Times reports this is the second year Fairfax sat out of the Senate dais.
“And to do that in this year, in particular, was very hurtful to a lot of people,” Fairfax said. “It does not move us forward, it does not bring us together. And so I wanted to do my part to make it clear that I don’t condone it.”
A protest of this nature comes during the same time many Americans celebrate the legacy of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Slate Magazine notes Mississippi and Alabama continue to celebrate Lee and MLK's birthdays jointly on the third Monday in January.
Despite the backlash and the explicit racist beliefs held by the Confederacy, state senators defend celebrating Lee. The defeated general was known for conducting slave hunts and was a slave owner.
Stuart tried to ignore the role of slavery while describing Lee as an honorable man who attempted to reconcile the nation.
“He was a man that personified integrity, honor and commitment to duty, a selfless man that devoted his entire life to the service of his country, either in battle or in teaching people to be good citizens, and a man who always did what he thought was right,” Stuart said. “There were few people after the Civil War who did what Lee did to heal the wounds of this country and to try to reunite this country after that horrible war.”
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