Most politicians don’t really understand power.
Oh, they may talk about power, they may use power, they may even think they are powerful. But from the local county auditor to even the president of the United States, the meaning of true power eludes them.
Justin Fairfax, Lt. Governor of the blue state of Virginia, is one of the most powerful African American politicians in the United States. He knows what true power is, and yesterday he used it to knock a 100-year-old racist tradition literally off its pedestal. Other politicians should take notice.
For more than 100 years, the Virginia State Senate has had a little tradition, where they honor Confederate “heroes” Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee at the close of a Senate session sometime near the birthdays of two men. Now if you didn’t take Treason 101 in high school, you probably missed the part where Jackson and Lee were part of the Confederacy that broke away from the United States and started the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter. Perhaps you also didn’t learn that Robert E. Lee, as head of the Confederate Army, is responsible for more American deaths than the Nazis, The Vietcong, ISIS, the LAPD, Cobra, Hydra, and high blood pressure.
Maybe in high school, you were taught about how Stonewall Jackson was a complicated man, who started a black Sunday school during slavery and even taught his parishioners how to read from the “good book,” while still owning slaves, which is the equivalent of chaperoning a Girl Scout troop in your spare time while your main gig is director of marketing for Pornhub.
The point is, at the time and by modern standards, Jackson and Lee were horrible men. They also happen to have birthdays very close to each other (Jackson, January 21; Lee, January 19) and Jackson occasionally shares a birthday with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Consequently, for years, on or around the birthdays of these two Confederates, a member of the Virginia Senate would announce, “I would like to adjourn in honor of General Lee or Stonewall Jackson.”
The Senate would agree, someone would take the podium to speak a couple of words, and then everyone would break for orange slices and Mint Julip Capri-Suns. All of this has gone off without a hitch for decades, even after the first African Americans got elected to the Virginia Senate; even after the state adopted the ridiculous Lee-Jackson-King Holiday from 1984 to 2000; even after Virginia elected its first black governor, Doug Wilder, from 1990-1994. However, Justin Fairfax didn’t come to Richmond to play footsie with Confederates and he is very much his great-grandfather’s child.
He knows power.
Since being elected Lt. Governor of Virginia in 2017, Fairfax has served as the president of the state Senate and has quietly left the podium whenever state senators have attempted to honor Stonewall or Lee at the end of the session. He did it last Friday when a Republican senator stepped up to honor Robert E. Lee. The reasons are obvious. First, no one should be honoring American traitors in a government building, no matter where that traitor was born. Secondly, Justin Fairfax, a man who literally took his oath of office with his three-greats-ago grandfather’s Freedom papers in his pocket, knows history and knows power.
Power is not just the ability to do things. Anybody can make something happen. You can use force, you can coerce, you can threaten, or shame or bribe. Real power isn’t in what you can make happen. Real power comes from what you can prevent from happening.
What’s more powerful, starting a flood or stopping raging waters? What’s more powerful, shooting a gun or stopping a bullet?
On Monday, Stonewall Jackson’s birthday, Fairfax knew that a random senator would likely try honor Jackson at the end of the session. So what did the Lt. Governor do? He brought two men, Dr. Warren Christian, the great great grandson of Stonewall Jackson, and the Reverend Robert W. Lee IV the great, great nephew of Robert E. Lee, to the Senate building. These two guests aren’t just related to the two confederate icons, they have argued for years that Virginia should stop honoring their ancestors.
“As a Robert Lee, I want to be a different footnote in history,” Lee said in an interview afterward with the Washington Post “And I want to stand with Justin Fairfax ... and say that honoring the racist white supremacist past that we hold with statues, with mentions ... on the floor of the commonwealth’s legislature is a no-go for me, and a no-go for so many people of goodwill in the South.”
It was quiet. It was simple, and guess what? The Republicans in the Virginia Senate blinked. No one said anything. No one attempted to honor Jackson on his birthday, no one attempted to besmirch the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with white supremacist Confederate nonsense. They knew there would be questions to ask and hell to pay if they honored Stonewall Jackson as a member of his own family was in the Senate chambers standing right next to Fairfax ready to decry the whole debacle. Justin Fairfax shut the whole thing down with two guests, a firm position, and using power to stop a vulgar re-telling of history.
Now, this doesn’t mean Republicans won’t try to slide into a later session and praise Jackson or Lee. But that’s not the point. When they do, Justin Fairfax will quietly step down from the podium as he did last Friday. They already know he won. They already know he shamed, shaded and outmaneuvered them from celebrating Jackson’s birthday on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Justin Fairfax showed these white nationalist worshipping, ahistorical Republicans what true power is, and anything they do afterward is just saving face.