States begin removing Capitol’s Confederate statues on their own

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A growing number of southern states are taking matters into their own hands to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol in the absence of action by Congress.

The House passed a bill late last month to remove statues of people who served the Confederacy or otherwise defended slavery that are displayed around the Capitol complex, but the GOP-controlled Senate has declined to take it up. 

Many Republicans say it should be up to states to decide — and some states are doing just that. 

Top state leaders in Georgia endorsed the idea of replacing a statue of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, with one of the late civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

A Virginia state commission voted in late July to remove a statue of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee from the Capitol, although a replacement statue has yet to be determined.

And a North Carolina legislative committee last week approved a model of a statue of the late evangelist Billy Graham to replace the statue of former governor Charles Aycock, who held white supremacist views. 

Days after Lewis laid in state at the Capitol last week, most members of the Georgia congressional delegation called on the state’s governor, lieutenant governor and state House Speaker to honor the late lawmaker with a statue instead of the former Confederate official. All three state leaders have expressed support for the idea.

“There is no Georgian more worthy of this great honor than John Lewis, who symbolizes for us not only what Georgia once was but what it can and should be,” members of the delegation wrote in a letter led by Reps. Sanford Bishop (D) and Tom Graves (R).

The letter’s signatories included GOP lawmakers who voted against the bill that the House passed to remove all the Confederate statues in the Capitol.

Graves argued that it’s better to allow states “to make decisions that are decisions they want to make” instead of forcing a “mandate.”

“We wanted to draw a clear distinction that, hey, there is a time and a place for not just about removing a statue, but replacing one with a fitting replacement. And we could think of no one better than Congressman Lewis,” Graves said in an interview.

The nationwide protests this summer over racial injustice, sparked by the death of George Floyd during a police arrest, have fueled debate over symbols of white supremacy and led many communities across the country to reconsider monuments to people who defended slavery.

Recent polling has shown more Americans expressing support for removing Confederate statues from public spaces. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last month found 51 percent of respondents believed the statues should be removed, a shift from 63 percent supporting allowing the statues to remain two years ago. 

Many of the statues in the Capitol facing calls for removal are part of the National Statuary Hall collection, to which each state contributes two statues. Those statues can only be replaced if a state legislature passes a resolution endorsed by the governor, although Capitol officials can decide where to display them.

Some states were already in the process of replacing their statues long before this summer’s protests over racial injustice.

Arkansas is planning to replace its statues of James Paul Clarke, a former senator and governor, and Uriah Milton Rose, an attorney who backed the Confederacy, with musician Johnny Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates. 

And Florida is working on replacing its statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general, with civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. 

The plans by Florida, Arkansas and North Carolina have all been in the works for more than a year.

Still, it will likely be many months, if not years, before the statues disappear from the Capitol. 

Once a state decides who should get the honor of a statue instead, it must hire a sculptor, obtain the funds to build and transport the sculpture, and find a new place to display the outgoing statue being replaced. Any state request to submit a new statue to the Statuary Hall collection must also be approved by the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress, which oversees artwork in the Capitol. 

The bill that the House passed last month would order the removal of the 11 Confederate statues displayed in the Statuary Hall collection as well as depictions of five other figures with histories of white supremacy, including Aycock and Clarke.

Some of the statues would have to be removed within 45 days, while others would need to be out of public sight within 120 days.

The House vote was bipartisan but divided Republicans. While 72 Republicans joined all Democrats to pass the bill, another 113 Republicans opposed it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not taken a specific position on the House bill, but previously rejected calls to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol and argued the decision should be up to states.

“What I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol and scrub out everybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery,” McConnell said in June.

Increasingly, even the descendants of some of the former Confederates support replacing the statues.

Bishop, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he spoke with a descendant of Stephens and found that they also agreed it’s time to take his statue out of the Capitol. 

“I have spoken with Judge Lawton Stephens, a descendant of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who fully supports our efforts to replace the Stephens statue with one of John Lewis, who he has the highest level of admiration and respect for,” Bishop said in a statement to The Hill.

“John Lewis is an American hero who reminds us that we must make ‘good trouble’ to improve our country,” he added.

Tags Alexander Hamilton Stephens Confederate statues George Floyd protests Georgia John Lewis Mitch McConnell North Carolina Tom Graves Virginia

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