State Watch

Virginia’s only black statewide official is lone protester during Robert E. Lee tribute

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), the only African-American official elected to a statewide position, was the lone protester on Friday during a tribute in the state Senate honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday.

Fairfax delegated his typical duties of presiding over the state Senate chamber in Richmond and let Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart lead the tribute.

"History repeats itself. I will be stepping off the dais today in protest of the Virginia Senate honoring Robert E. Lee," Fairfax tweeted. "I'll be thinking of this June 5, 1798 manumission document that freed my great-great-great grandfather Simon Fairfax from slavery in Virginia. #WeRiseTogether."

Richmond is the site of the former capital of the Confederacy and a joint day celebrating Lee and Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson lands just days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As a descendant of slaves, Fairfax told The Washington Post that he didn't believe Lee was someone to honor on the floor of the statehouse.

"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," he said.

"And to do that in this year in particular was very hurtful to a lot of people. 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," Fairfax continued.

Virginia lawmakers work through both Lee-Jackson Day and MLK Day, the newspaper noted. Lawmakers typically use the days to honor their namesakes.

Stuart's speech made an attempt to separate Lee from the issue of slavery at the root of the Civil War as Fairfax sat on a nearby bench.

"I rise to celebrate his birthday because he was a great Virginian and a great American, and not because it has anything to do with slavery," Stuart said. "I celebrate Lee on his birthday because he was a man with the strength of his convictions and that is a rare trait, either in yesteryear or today."

"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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