By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – As early as November, the stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway that runs through Alexandria, Virginia, will boast a new title after the city council voted to erase the name of the Confederacy’s president.
But the city’s neighbors to the north in Arlington are powerless to initiate a similar change, even though local officials would like to follow Alexandria’s example.
The difference lies in a simple distinction: Unlike Alexandria, Arlington is technically a county, not a city, and under Virginia law cannot alter major road names without permission from the state legislature.
As officials across the United States increasingly consider excising Confederate names from streets, schools and monuments following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, many are confronting bureaucratic and legal obstacles.
(GRAPHIC: Monumental Change – http://tmsnrt.rs/2vofYs6)
An Aug. 12 rally organized by white nationalists to protest against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park devolved into armed clashes on the streets of the college town, and one woman was killed when a man plowed a car into anti-fascist counterprotesters.
The violence has escalated an ongoing debate over Confederate symbols. Some people view them as hateful and racist, while others say they represent their Southern heritage and are tributes to fallen soldiers.
In some cases, the local laws impose a series of steps. In Austin, a liberal bastion in the heart of Republican Texas, the city council recently began the process of renaming Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue.
Austin’s ordinances call for every person who owns property along either street to be notified, and if anyone objects, the council must hold a public hearing on the proposed change. Meanwhile, the city’s traffic engineer, fire department and police department must review the proposal along with the local gas company and the U.S. Postal Service, among other agencies.
“It’s a process that is fairly involved,” said Austin Councilwoman Ann Kitchen, whose district includes Robert E. Lee Road.
The Dallas Independent School District will take up whether to rename several schools named for Confederate generals at a Sept. 14 meeting.
In a 1,300-word provision, the board’s own policies lay out a lengthy procedure for naming or renaming a facility: The proposal has to come from the school itself and must be backed by at least one member of the parent-teacher association, the administration and a state-mandated “site-based decision-making committee.” The policy also calls for such changes to be considered only after April 1, near the end of the school year.
The process is so complicated that, in light of Charlottesville, the board will likely discuss ways to waive parts of the policy to expedite the renaming, said Dan Micciche, the school board president.
Other locales are finding their authority usurped by a higher power.
In Decatur, Georgia, some residents have demanded the removal of a Confederate monument, but the memorial is actually owned by Dekalb County, rather than the city. State law, meanwhile, specifically prohibits the removal of Confederate memorials.
Georgia is not alone. North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama – which passed its law earlier this year – bar cities from removing any historical monuments.
Such efforts can also draw lawsuits, which can take months or even years to resolve.
In Arlington, Jay Fisette, the chairman of the county board, issued a statement last week deploring the “domestic terrorism” displayed at Charlottesville and recognizing the desire among some residents to rename Jefferson Davis Highway and Lee Highway, another route that runs through the county.
In a phone interview, Fisette noted that the county already asked legislators to change the name two years ago, with little success, and will do so again this year.
“It is certainly my hope that after the experience of Charlottesville, the legislature will look upon it favorably,” he said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)