Democrats see path to ridding Capitol of Confederate statues

House Democrats are seizing on momentum from nationwide demonstrations over racial injustice to revive an effort years in the making: the removal of Confederate statues on Capitol Hill.

There are 11 such sculptures in the Capitol building, placed there at the behest of southern states. Democrats have pushed for years — unsuccessfully — to have them removed, most recently after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

But now, amid the national outcry over police violence against African Americans — and with the Democrats controlling one chamber of Congress — they’re putting pressure on Republicans to rid the Capitol of figures who fought to preserve slavery. 

“The timing might be just right,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday, the same day that members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) introduced legislation to remove the statues.

The effort sets up a clash with Republicans, who are largely united behind the tradition that states should decide which statues they want displayed in the Capitol complex. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) both indicated this week that they have no intention of bucking the states on that issue. 

The statues are displayed in various quarters of the Capitol complex as part of the National Statuary Hall collection. Each of the 50 states contributes two statues to the collection, which they can replace if a change is approved by the state legislature and governor.

Most of the statues depicting Confederate leaders have been on display since the era of Jim Crow laws in the early 20th century, decades before the civil rights movement gave way to ending legalized discrimination against African Americans. And Democrats, particularly those in the Black Caucus, say it’s highly offensive to keep them there a century later. 

“These statues need to come out of places of honor,” Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Democratic whip and a veteran of the civil rights era, said Friday in an interview with SiriusXM.

Controversy over Confederate statues nationwide has resurfaced following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man killed in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. A video, captured by a bystander, shows Floyd pleading for his life while an officer pins his head to the street, a knee on his neck. Floyd was pronounced dead a short time later. 

Four officers have been charged, one with second-degree murder. But the arrests did little to temper the public outcry, with protest marches in scores of cities around the country, where demonstrators have demanded an end to racial profiling in law enforcement and more accountability for abusive officers. Leaders in both parties are working on legislation with those goals in mind. 

Meanwhile, a number of local governments have responded to the historic protests with vows to remove Confederate emblems under their jurisdiction. In other places the demonstrators aren’t waiting that long and are removing or defacing the statues themselves. 

GOP leaders are getting plenty of cover from President Trump, who jumped into the debate over Confederate emblems this week when he forcefully rejected the idea of renaming U.S. military bases honoring Confederate figures. That position puts Trump at odds with even his GOP allies on Capitol Hill, who are moving legislation through the Senate to do just that.

Amid the years-long debate over the appropriateness of Confederate emblems, some states have opted to remove statues of such controversial figures in the Capitol. But it’s a lengthy and time-consuming process that typically takes years to decide who should get the honor of a statue instead, commission an artist to build the statue, and find a new home for the departing statue.

Florida, for instance, enacted a law in 2018 to replace its statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general displayed in the Capitol Visitor Center, and replace it with civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. More than two years later, however, the bronze sculpture of Smith hasn’t been removed.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) similarly signed legislation into law last year to replace the state’s statues of Uriah Milton Rose, an attorney who backed the Confederacy, and James Paul Clarke, a former senator and governor who advocated for white supremacy, with musician Johnny Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates.

And in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) earlier this year endorsed removing the statue of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee from the Capitol. Northam has also backed taking down another statue of Lee in the state’s capital amid recent demonstrations against police brutality.

It’s not the first time that the Lee statue in the Capitol, which has been on display since 1909, has come under scrutiny. During her first term as Speaker, Pelosi moved the Lee statue from a prominent place in Statuary Hall, steps from the House chamber, to a floor below in a room known as the Capitol Crypt.

“I could move things around. I couldn’t actually take them out,” Pelosi lamented. “Believe me, if I had more authority, we would have fewer of those statues around.” 

While lawmakers can’t unilaterally eliminate the statues in the Statuary Hall Collection, the Joint Committee on the Library — currently led by House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — determines where they are placed.

Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), both senior CBC members, introduced legislation that would give Congress the power to remove all of the Confederate statues in the collection within 120 days. The statues could either be reclaimed by the states or given to the Smithsonian.

A similar debate also emerged in 2017 after the Charlottesville violence and in 2015, following the racially motivated fatal shooting of nine parishioners at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. 

House Democratic leaders, in the minority at the time, had urged the removal of all Confederate imagery from the Capitol, including statues. Republican leaders conceded part of that request after the Charleston shooting, agreeing to remove the state flags adorning an underground subway tunnel — including Mississippi’s emblem, which contains the Confederate battle flag — and replace them with giant commemorative coins. 

On the Senate side of Capitol Hill, in another subterranean tunnel, all 50 state flags remain. 

At least one Republican is on board with the idea of removing Confederate statues.

Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), the only black Republican in the House, said Congress should be careful about “white-washing history,” but suggested Capitol Hill is the wrong place to remember the leaders of the Confederacy. 

“The bottom line for me is [if] someone didn’t want to be part of this great country, then why would we want to have their statue on the Capitol?” Hurd told The Hill. 

Juliegrace Brufke contributed. 


Tags Barbara Lee Bennie Thompson Confederate statues Donald Trump George Floyd protests Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi racial justice Roy Blunt Will Hurd Zoe Lofgren
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