At a talk given by the author and historian Edward Ayers, a Charlottesville city councilor, Kristin Szakos, asked about the city’s Confederate monuments. She wondered whether the city should discuss removing them.
People around her gasped. “You would have thought I had asked if it was O.K. to torture puppies,” she recalled during a 2013 conversation on BackStory, a podcast supported by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
The response to her comment was heated, and swift. Ms. Szakos said she received threats via phone and email. “I felt like I had put a stick in the ground, and kind of ugly stuff bubbled up from it,” she said.
It was a local turning point, helped along by national events. Ms. Szakos’s comment came about a month after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida. The trial and eventual acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, helped fan the flames of the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted into full force in 2014 following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
By 2015, debates about Confederate flags and monuments were heating up in Southern states including South Carolina, Texas and Louisiana. Those who favored removal saw the symbols as monuments to white supremacy, but their opponents accused them of trying to erase history.
In Charlottesville that year, someone spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the foundation of the Lee statue. City workers cleaned it quickly, leaving only a faint outline.
Buildup to a vote
By 2016, Wes Bellamy, another Charlottesville city councilor and the city’s vice mayor, had become a champion of efforts to remove Confederate monuments. At a news conference in front of the Lee statue in March of that year, he said the City Council would appoint a commission to discuss the issue.
“When I see the multitude of people here who are so passionate about correcting something that they feel should have been done a long time ago, I am encouraged,” he said to the crowd of residents in front of him. Some clapped. Others shouted, accusing Mr. Bellamy of sowing division.
That same month, Zyahna Bryant, a high…