Community Leaders in Charlottesville, Va., have melted down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the planned removal of which spurred violent protests in 2017 that resulted in the killing of a counterprotester by a white supremacist.
Among the leaders of the project, known as the Swords Into Plowshares initiative, is Jalane Schmidt, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, where throngs of protesters marched with torches the night before the August 2017 Unite the Right rally.
Schmidt is a 1991 graduate of Bethel College, where she received the 2022 Outstanding Alumnus Award.
On Oct. 26, Schmidt, who is also director of the Memory Project at UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, an effort launched in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, opened a news conference by reciting Scripture that calls on believers to beat swords into plowshares.
“We’re here to announce that we’ve melted the Lee statue,” Schmidt said, to applause. She later added: “Creativity and art can express democratic, inclusive values. We believe that art has the potential to heal.”
Organizers said they plan to hire an artist to use the bronze from the statue to form a new art piece.
After the white supremacist rally, local elected officials voted unanimously to donate the statue in late 2021 to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a local Black-led nonprofit that funds the Swords Into Plowshares initiative.
Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, said during the news conference that project leaders are just beginning the process of selecting a jury to help decide which artist or group will create the replacement artwork. They hope to gather sculpture specialists, historians and “people who understand our narrative deeply,” she said.
The destruction of the statue, which was removed from a city park in July 2021, began Oct. 21 when the head was melted down in an undisclosed location, as was the sword.
Isaac Collins, a United Methodist minister in Charlottesville, was part of a small group allowed to witness the melting of the statue. He told Religion News Service he spoke to the assembly shortly before the process began and quoted Psalm 135:15-18, which states “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. . . . They have mouths, but they do not speak. . . . Those who make them, and all who trust them, shall become like them.”
Collins said he had used the Scripture passage before in a public Bible study in Charlottesville that focused on racism because it helped “define the role that these statues played as idols for white supremacy.”
He also reflected on events surrounding the erection of the statue in 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan staged cross burnings in the city and organized a march through a predominantly Black neighborhood.
“All of these things were connected in creating a culture of death that the Lee statue symbolized,” he said. Melting it down, he explained, was a literal enactment of Isaiah 2:2-4 — turning swords into plowshares.
“It’s taking the culture of death and repurposing it for the sake of life, telling this very long story of resistance to white supremacist culture and giving us a vision of how to move forward,” Collins said.
Schmidt, who also attended the melting, described the event as a somber affair, saying, “It was not celebratory.” Asked how she approached the moment as a religious studies scholar, she recalled the history of iconoclasm and the seriousness of dismantling objects imbued with meaning by others, be they secular or religious. That includes Confederate statues: When some monuments were erected in the early 20th century, she said, clergy participated in the proceedings.
Fast-forward roughly a century, and Charlottesville’s monument to the Confederate general proved to be a magnet for hate. Even after the Unite the Right rally, Schmidt noted, people showed up to “protect” the statue, patrolling the park where it stood.
“The most meaningful part, for me, was when the sword went into the furnace,” she said.
Religious leaders were among those who directly confronted the protesters who descended on Charlottesville in 2017 to participate in the Unite the Right rally.
The infamous torchlight march — which featured neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis shouting racist and antisemitic slogans such as “Jews will not replace us!” — took place on the UVA campus across the street from an interfaith worship service.
The following day, a multifaith coalition of clergy and other faith leaders attempted to block the entrance to Emancipation Park, where the far-right rally was slated to take place. Protesters eventually shoved clergy out of the way, taunting the faith leaders throughout the day.
When a white nationalist barreled his car through a column of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring many others, clergy rushed to the scene to offer support.
Since then, Confederate-related symbols have been removed from public places across the country, including from sacred spaces, with church leaders voicing concerns about racial injustice.
In September, the Washington National Cathedral unveiled its new stained-glass windows that replaced earlier panes honoring Lee and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. The new additions, titled “Now and Forever” and designed by artist Kerry James Marshall, depict Black protesters carrying signs that say “No Foul Play” and “Fairness.”
As for the Charlottesville statue, Schmidt said the melting was simply the first step in a process she expects could take several years.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “This is the end of the beginning.”