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Robert E. Lee Statue In Dallas To Be Removed After Judge Tosses Restraining Order

An 81-year-old statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Oak Lawn's Lee Park can now come down. 

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater ruled the statue's removal didn't violate First Amendment rights. He also said the Dallas City Council didn't break its own rules when it voted Wednesday to remove the statue.

On Wednesday afternoon, hours after the council voted to take down the statue, and as crews had hoisted a crane in Lee Park, Fitzwater granted a temporaryrestraining order, halting the effort. 

Hiram Patterson and the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit right after the council vote, seeking to block the removal. They argued the council’s decision was unconstitutional, and that the council vote violated city rules.

'A totalitarian move'

In the complaint, Attorney Kirk Lyons, dubbed a "white supremacist lawyer" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the vote a violation of the First Amendment, describing it as “a totalitarian move to determine authorized forms of political communication and to punish unauthorized political speech.”

Fitzwater ruled Thursday that the plaintiffs failed to prove their First Amendment rights were violated.

Lyons also argued city rules barred the council from taking a vote during Wednesday's so-called briefing meeting. The city fired back, saying Patterson didn’t have standing to bring the suit, and rejected the constitutional and procedural arguments.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said city rules allowed for a vote in cases of emergencies and architectural or construction orders and contracts, which would include the statue’s removal.

“I think the judge’s ruling ... recognized the legality and the appropriateness of this process,” said Larry Casto, a Dallas city attorney. “And as we move forward we’ll continue to remain open and transparent.”

The statue will be removed sometime in the coming days. City Manager T.C. Broadnax estimates the removal would cost about $450,000, which would come from extra money in this year's budget. 

Credit Justin Martin / KERA News
Officers and onlookers stand around the state in Lee Park Wednesday, Sept. 6 before work crews were stopped.

Mixed reaction

For watchers in the court room, the decision drew mixed reactions. Larry James from the Dallas non-profit CitySquare called it a victory.

“It’s time that we take the moral high ground, and proclaim to all of our youth and all of our families that we’re all one,” he said. “No more division, no more second-class citizens, no more institutionalized racism. We’ve got a long way to go, and taking the statues down isn’t going to solve that problem, but we can go work together now.”

Beth Biesel disagrees. She’s part of the Park Cities-Preston Hollow Leadership Forum.

“Just because you call it racist propaganda doesn’t make it so,” she said. “They’ve made a claim but they’ve not made their case. And it’s not the role of city government to try to protect people from hurting other people’s feelings.”

'Part of the process'

The council voted 13-1 Wednesday to take down the statue.

Council member Rickey Callahan didn't vote out of protest. He wanted the statue's removal to be put to a voter referendum; the council voted against that idea. Council member Sandy Greyson was the only person who voted against the resolution.

"I believe that the Robert E. Lee statue should have been part of the process that was laid out," she said.

Rawlings formed a task force last month to discuss and recommend over the next several weeks what should ultimately be done with the Lee statue, the Confederate War Memorial in Pioneer Park Cemetery and the other streets, parks and places in Dallas that bear names and symbols of the Confederacy.

The task force will hold at least two more public meetings for input and report findings to the Cultural Affairs Commission by Oct. 12. The commission will then make a final presentation to the City Council on Nov. 1. City Council will take any further action necessary on Nov. 8.

The statue of Lee, which is not a designated city landmark, would be transported to Hensley Field for storage as the task force continues to study the issue.

The task force on Confederate monuments held its first public input meeting Thursday evening to discuss the future of the statue and possible renaming of Lee Park.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Council members Dwaine Caraway and Tennell Atkins talk to reporters Sept. 7 after a federal judge threw out a restraining order blocking the removal of a Confederate statue in Dallas.

Charlottesville's influence

Rawlings said the urgency to remove the Lee statue was accelerated by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. He said it’s the right thing to do from a safety standpoint.

“There’s no question in my mind that our city will be better tomorrow with that statue down,” Rawlings said at Wednesday's council meeting.

In recent weeks, the four black Dallas council members urged the Confederate statues' removal, and three of them requested that an item be placed on Wednesday's agenda to take down the Lee statue, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Council member Dwaine Caraway amended the resolution to more clearly state that "the display of public Confederate monuments glorifying Confederate causes [does] not promote a welcoming and inclusive community and is against the public policy of the City of Dallas."

To watch the meeting, see our story from Wednesday.

About the task force

Rawlings on Aug. 24 released the details of the task force. It’s chaired by consultant and United Methodist pastor Frances Waters. 

Rawlings announced he wanted to form the task force three days after the violent clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Demonstrators protested on the University of Virginia’s campus over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. After one person was killed and dozens were injured, cities and colleges around the country were prompted to address their nods to the Confederacy.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.