RICHMOND, Va. – The statue of Robert E. Lee has towered over Richmond for more than 100 years. In recent days, though, it's been conveying a different message - words like "Black lives matter" are covering its stone pedestal.

At least a hundred people gathered on a muggy Thursday afternoon near the monument to the Confederate commander after Gov. Ralph Northam announced it was to come down "as soon as possible."

Protesters on Monument Avenue have circled the Lee statue and four others – also soon to be removed – in recent days as demonstrations have erupted around the United States over racial inequality, police brutality and the deaths of many black Americans, including George Floyd. He was killed after a white police officer held his knee to Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes, as other officers stood by.

James Kelley, 29, has been attending the protests in Richmond. "I think also just being that we were the capital of the Confederacy, if anyone's going to lead by example, it needs to be us," said Kelley, wearing a bright yellow bicycle vest with the words "Justice for George Floyd."

Demonstrators spray painted the Lee statue and the others of J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury. They wanted to see them come down after years of the monuments being protected by state law, despite being "racist symbols of oppression and inequality," as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney put it.

"I've looked at (the monument), and I've been like, 'Why do I live here. Why do I look at this every day? Why is that there?'" said Jessica Phelps, 26, a California transplant who lives on Monument Avenue half a block from the Lee statue.

Lifelong city resident Reggie Meyers brought his teenage son Thursday night to see the statue covered in graffiti.

"A lot of the time, people don't get to understand the magnitude of something without seeing it," Meyers said. "They read about it, they hear about it, but they don't get to experience it. When you get to experience something like this, then it's on your front door, and you have to ask yourself, 'What do I have to do, to make it better?'"

Richmond isn't alone. Around the U.S, demonstrations over the death of Floyd and racial inequality have sparked both protesters and city officials to remove, deface or announce plans to take down many Confederate memorials.

While the decision in Richmond signals a positive step for those who want to see the monuments removed, experts warn that the push to take them down and address what sparked them to be erected still has a long way to go.

Among the locations where mayors, protesters and even groups dedicated to Confederate history have taken down statues or announced plans:

In Montgomery, Alabama, on Monday, another statue of Lee was toppled in front of its namesake high school. Cheers went up among a small crowd gathered to watch the fallen general as cars circled the area and honked. In Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin ordered workers to take down a 50-foot-tall Confederate obelisk on Monday night after a group of protesters failed to knock it down. The night before, the group dismantled the brass cast of Charles Linn, a captain in the Confederate Navy, from its base.  The city of Mobile, Alabama, removed a bronze figure of Admiral Raphael Semmes early Friday, without making any public announcement. Semmes was a Confederate commerce raider, sinking Union-allied ships during the Civil War, and the statue had become a flashpoint in the city. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett announced Thursday that a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers who died at a Union prison camp in the city will be removed from a park. A statue outside the Tennessee State Capitol of Edward Carmack, a controversial former lawmaker and newspaper publisher who espoused racist views, was torn down Saturday.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy removed a statue of a soldier gazing south in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday. The Arkansas division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy also announced that a Confederate soldier monument in Bentonville will be removed from the downtown square and relocated to a private park.

"We've seen an increasing number of these statues being taken down," said Sara Bronin, a University of Connecticut law professor who focuses on land use and historic preservation. "You are seeing an increasing number of instances where local leaders are assessing what these statutes were intended to convey and determining that that's not something they want to see in their cities anymore."

The memorials' removals come after yearslong battles in some cases to see the markers taken down.

For those who want to see the memorials gone, the statues are seen as symbols of racism that prop up and honor not only the slave-holding men they depict but also a system of racial inequality. Defenders of the memorials say they symbolize American values and Confederate history.

In recent years, debates around the statues have become rallying points for some white nationalist organizations. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the deadly 2017 rally was prompted by the city's plan to remove Confederate statues.

After the nine black members of a bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina, were killed by a white supremacist previously seen photographed with a Confederate battle flag, a renewed interest in the memorials spread around the country.

According to a February 2019 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 100 Confederate symbols around the country have been removed since the Charleston attack.

In South Carolina, legislation was passed to remove Confederate flags from the statehouse. New Orleans removed its last Confederate-era monument by May 2017.

However, more than 770 Confederate monuments are currently standing across the U.S. and nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols or names are emblazoned on government buildings, schools and parks, among other infrastructure, according to Lecia Brooks, spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If more cities and counties try to remove the memorials, there will be continued challenges, Bronin said.

In Alabama, for example, Attorney General Steve Marshall has already filed a lawsuit against Birmingham's Woodfin, seeking $25,000 from the city as a violation of a state law protecting like monuments. Similarly, in Montgomery, police said the group that knocked down the Lee statue had been arrested.

At least six states, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, have laws that protect the monuments, Brooks said.

"Because of those preservation laws, many Confederate symbols stand – for now," she added. "But the fight to remove them never stopped and those who want these symbols of white supremacy removed from their public spaces will continue to press forward."

Walter D. Kennedy, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his group has pushed to keep these laws in place in some states in order to protect "traditional American values."

"When you attack a Confederate solider, you're attacking family . . . it's not some esoteric, academic discussion," said Kennedy, whose great grandfather's tombstone marks the Confederate States of America.

Kennedy said it's not that he is opposed to the removal of these monuments in communities where people want them taken down. It's their destruction that he fears.

"Let's see if we can work together. If the community has changed . . . if they don't like what's there, then let's work together," he said.

Representatives for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, another group that works to protect the monuments, did not immediately respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

Northam said the statue of Lee would be held in storage until further discussions can determine its future. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax told USA TODAY at the site of the statue Thursday that he had no timetable for the statue's immediate removal, but that it could happen before July 1. 

Asked about defenders' argument of the history of the statue, Fairfax, only the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia, said: "We don't need to be bound by history, we should know it, but we don't need to be bound by it and this history is a history of oppression is a history of excluding people from the promise that America makes to all its citizens."

The decision to take down the statues of Lee and other Confederate veterans on Monument Avenue in Richmond is long overdue, said Northam.

"From the beginning, there was no secret about what the statue meant," he said. When the Lee statue was erected in 1890, Lee had been dead for 20 years.

More than 150,000 people gathered in Richmond as thousands of others worked to put the statue up, Northam said. Most people attending the event were waving the Confederate flag, even though the Civil War had been over for 25 years, he added.

"Instead of choosing to heal the wounds of the American Civil War, they chose to keep them right here in Richmond," said Northam, who was embroiled in scandal last year over a racist yearbook photo showing blackface. Northam apologized but defied calls to step down, vowing instead to address racial inequities in Virginia during the remainder of his term.

Bronin said that the arguments by supporters of the statues fall short in that the memorials themselves are not historic. While some were erected shortly after the war, it took decades for others to rise. 

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report, a spike in the number of Confederate memorials came around 1900 and lasted into the 1920s, a period that saw the establishment of Jim Crow laws and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Then, in the 1950s and '60s, more monuments were erected during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.

"The statues are not history. They are meant to commemorate one history," Bronin said. "White leaders wanted to build white supremacy."

For the Lee statue in Richmond, Northam acknowledged a similar motivation. Five Confederate statues dot Monument Avenue. While four are owned by the city of Richmond, the largest and most grand, the statue of Lee, is state-owned. Lawmakers who called for it to be built wanted it to last forever, Northam noted.

"They needed the statues to remain forever – because they helped keep the system in place," he said.

University of Richmond historian Julian Hayter said the history of the statues in Richmond cannot be divorced from other systems that propped up racial inequality in the city for years.

The four other statues on Monument Avenue were erected in the early 1900s, during a period when African Americans had their voting rights suppressed and Virginia had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the United States, Hayter said.

"It's impossible to separate the Confederate situates in Commonwealth and Richmond from Jim Crow era segregation," Hayter said.

During its last legislative session, however, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill allowing localities to determine whether to keep memorials. Previous state law prevented cities like Richmond and Charlottesville, which had strong local support for their removal, from taking them down.

Hayter said years of Republican control in the state general assembly prevented the laws from being overturned. Once Democrats took control, it became clear that the statues were likely to come down, he said.

The law goes into effect July 1, and its how Stoney, the city's mayor, plans for the other four Confederate statues on Monument Avenue to be removed.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's time. It's time. It's time to put an end to the lost cause and fully embraced the righteous cause," Stoney said at a news conference Thursday.

The law is one of a number of measures taken by Northam and other Democrats in Virginia to address racial inequality in the state. Other measures include setting up a commission to strike racist laws still on the books in Virginia and the removal of Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday.

Northam said taking down the statue of Lee would signal a new day in Virginia.

"The legacy of racism also continues as part of a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives – whether we know it or not," Northam said. "So it's time to acknowledge the reality of institutional racism, even if you can't see it."

For Hayter, it's not enough just to remove the statues. For years, narratives around the Civil War and the Confederacy have been baked into state education systems, and the effects of segregation-era policies can still be felt in Richmond's schools and housing, he said.

"If these monuments are taken down and there is no attempt to correct this narrative, then this is a squandered opportunity," Hayter said.

Contributing: Sean Jones, The Progress-Index; Brad Zinn, The News Leader; Melissa Brown, Kirsten Fiscus and Krista Johnson, Montgomery Advertiser; Justin L. Mack, Indianapolis Star; Adam Tamburin and Natalie Allison, Nashville Tennessean; The Associated Press