House votes to remove Confederate statues from Capitol

The House voted Wednesday to approve legislation to remove statues in the Capitol of people who served the Confederacy or otherwise worked to defend slavery, a moment sparked by the demonstrations for racial justice across the country.

The legislation was approved in a 305-113 vote. All of the “no” votes came from GOP lawmakers, while 72 Republicans voted to remove the statues.

“Just imagine what it feels like as an African American to know that my ancestors built the Capitol, but yet there are monuments to the very people that enslaved my ancestors,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, said ahead of the vote.

She also noted the fact that the legislation was being approved less than a week after the death of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights legend who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and suffered a skull fracture from state police at another march in Selma, Ala.

“I think it’s so appropriate that we do this also in honor of Mr. Lewis. The main honor for Mr. Lewis, to me, is to get a signature on the Voting Rights Act. But this is also a way to honor his legacy because what he fought for every day is the exact opposite of these symbols,” Bass said.

The vote was bipartisan, but it divided Republicans, with more than half voting against the legislation. GOP leaders previously had expressed reluctance to override states’ decisions on which statues to display in the Capitol. The two top House Republicans, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), backed the bill while Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3-ranked House Republican, voted no. 

Black lawmakers have long called for removing Confederate imagery from the Capitol, and Wednesday’s vote was a victory for their efforts.

Some said the vote to remove the Confederate statues should be viewed as an initial step toward a better country for all Americans.

“Let’s continue to correct the division that exists today, not just on this floor, but in this country. And if we can stand together in this instance, we can surely stand together and make this country, at a time in places of civil unrest, a better place for every single American,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee who noted that he represents Abraham Lincoln’s home district.

The legislation orders the removal of the 11 Confederate statues on display in the Capitol complex that are part of the National Statuary Hall collection. Most of the Confederate statues, which were contributed to the collection by Southern states, have been on display since the Jim Crow era in the early 20th century.

Under the current rules for the collection, each state contributes two statues and can only replace them if the state legislature and governor agree to it. The bill passed on Wednesday would require any Confederate statues to be removed from public display and either be donated to the Smithsonian or returned to the states that contributed them to the National Statuary Hall Collection.

The legislation would also replace a bust of the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who authored the 1857 Dred Scott ruling declaring that Black people didn’t have the rights of citizens, with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice. 

In addition, the bill instructs the Joint Committee on the Library, which oversees the placement of artwork in the Capitol, to remove specific depictions of other figures with histories of advocating for white supremacy: Charles Aycock, who served as North Carolina governor; John C. Calhoun, the former vice president and member of Congress; James Paul Clarke, a former senator and governor of Arkansas; and John Breckinridge, the former vice president and senator from Kentucky who was expelled from the Senate after joining the Confederate army.

The Taney bust is currently on display in the old Supreme Court chamber on the Senate side of the Capitol. And it has been controversial from the time an Illinois senator proposed displaying it there in 1865. The abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (Mass.) said at the time that “the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgement is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.” 

While lawmakers currently lack the authority to unilaterally remove the statues, they can decide where to display them in the Capitol. During her first stint as Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved a statue from Virginia of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army commander, from a prominent place steps from the Capitol rotunda to a floor below in a room known as the Crypt.

Pelosi has since taken further action to rid the Capitol of artwork honoring people who served the Confederacy. Last month, she ordered the removal of four portraits displayed outside the House chamber of former Speakers who held high-ranking leadership positions in the Confederacy or enlisted in its army.

Democrats have sought to draw a contrast with President Trump, who has defended Confederate imagery and threatened to veto a defense policy bill over a bipartisan provision to require removing the names of Confederate officers from military bases.

“Today, the House is taking a long overdue and historic step to ensure that individuals we honor here in our Capitol represent our nation’s highest ideals and not the worst in its history,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) ahead of the vote. 

Most GOP lawmakers voted “no” on Wednesday, arguing that removing statues of Confederate figures could lead to a slippery slope. The GOP had declined to take action to remove the imagery when they held the majority, including in 2017 after the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

“If we remove memorials to every person in this building who ever made a bad decision,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), “well, this would be a very barren place indeed.” 

A few of the statues targeted by the legislation are already in the process of being removed. Arkansas is planning to replace its statues of Clarke and Uriah Milton Rose, an attorney who backed the Confederacy, with musician Johnny Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates.

Florida is also in the midst of replacing its statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general, with civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

The House has taken additional legislative actions this week to eliminate Confederate imagery. Earlier this week, the House passed its version of the annual defense policy bill with a provision to require renaming military bases honoring Confederate officers.

And starting Thursday, the House is slated to take up a government spending package with measures to order the National Park Service to remove “all physical Confederate commemorative works” within 180 days and prohibit using taxpayer funds for construction projects on military installations named after Confederate officers unless they are being changed.

House Democrats are further planning to unveil voting rights legislation later this week in honor of Lewis. It’s expected to build upon a bill that Democrats passed in December to restore a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that established a process for states with histories of voter suppression to obtain federal clearance before making changes to election laws.


Updated at 6:45 p.m.

Tags Confederate statues Donald Trump George Floyd demonstrations John Lewis Karen Bass Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Nancy Pelosi Rodney Davis Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise Tom McClintock

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