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State legislatures consider US Capitol's Confederate statues

State legislatures consider US Capitol's Confederate statues
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A national struggle to come to terms with America's painful legacy of racial discrimination is hitting state legislatures across the country as elected officials consider reshaping Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

The collection on Capitol Hill, made up of two figures from each state, includes 11 men who served the Confederacy. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia honor Confederates with their statues in the Capitol.

Changes to those statues were already underway before protests spurred by the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Several states in recent years have voted to swap out their statues with new ones, and more Southern icons of the Civil War may be headed for local museums in the near future.

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In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signed legislation last year to replace both of the state’s statues — Arkansas currently commemorates Confederate judge and state historian Uriah Milton Rose and former Gov. James P. Clarke, a devoted white supremacist — with musician Johnny Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Lee Gatson Bates.

In Florida, then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed legislation in 2018 to replace the statue of Confederate army commander Edmund Kirby Smith with civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

The statues from Arkansas and Florida are still in Washington as their respective states raise the money to commission replacements, a process that can take years.

Legislators in Virginia voted this year to create a commission on historical statues. The commission has until Dec. 1 to make recommendations about one of the commonwealth's representatives to Statuary Hall, Robert E. Lee.

In Georgia, a bill to replace a statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens with one of Martin Luther King Jr. won endorsements from legislators in both parties. The measure, introduced late in this year's session, is likely to come up again next year.

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Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHouse Democrats subpoena private prison operator in forced hysterectomy case Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin Hillicon Valley: Leadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns | Snapchat launches in-app video platform 'Spotlight' | Uber, Lyft awarded federal transportation contract MORE (D-Miss.) introduced federal legislation to remove Confederate statues including his state's two contributions — Confederate President Jefferson Davis and James Zacariah George, a Confederate colonel who served in the U.S. Senate after the Civil War.

Mississippi's legislature recently voted to replace its state flag, which included the Confederate battle flag. But congressional Republicans who supported the vote to change the flag have not signaled any interest in swapping out statues.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said the decision to remove statues is up to the legislature, not Congress.

“How to best depict the history of our nation is always up for debate, but it is not the role of Congress to dictate to states which statues should be placed in the Capitol,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement.

In Alabama, Anthony Daniels, the state's first Black minority leader in the legislature, said state lawmakers have not yet discussed potentially replacing Confederate general Joseph Wheeler in Statuary Hall. But, there is movement on the issue, Daniels said. State legislators are considering reversing a 2017 law that prohibits local jurisdictions from altering monuments that have stood for at least 40 years in any way without state approval, and Daniels believes there will be bipartisan support for addressing local Confederate statues.

While Daniels said Confederate statues have a negative impact on people of color and should be removed, he wants to see bipartisan support for more substantial policy change, rather than just on the "cosmetic" issue of statues.

"The symbols and the cosmetics of it all can leave, but if the policies that have the institutional racism are the same, and the system itself is still in place, then what have we gained, besides the cosmetics of it all?" Daniels said. "I'm more interested in economic policy that allows more opportunities for people of color."

But statues appear to be an easier target.

Dozens of Confederate monuments have been toppled across the country over the past month by protesters who view them as symbols of white supremacy. They have become an emblem of partisan tensions and a favorite talking point for President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE, who signed an executive order last month directing the Justice Department to prosecute those who would tear down the statues.

Trump’s devotion to relics of the Confederate past has rankled some members of the GOP, inspiring some lawmakers to break with the president and call the monuments racist.

While Trump's position may have played better in 2017, when only 39 percent of Americans supported removing Confederate statues across the country, a majority of Americans — 52 percent — are now in favor of removal, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in June.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) is trying to rid the Capitol of monuments to Confederate generals and leaders. She sent a letter to the chairs of the Joint Committee on the Library, which oversees the statues, calling for their immediate removal.

Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus last month re-introduced bills in both chambers to send the Confederate statues in the Capitol back to their states or to the Smithsonian within 120 days.

“Americans in all 50 states and millions of people around the world are marching to protest racism and police violence directed at people of color, and yet across the country, Confederate statues and monuments still pay tribute to white supremacy and slavery in public spaces,” Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Top contender for Biden Defense chief would be historic pick Overnight Defense: 5 US service members killed in international peacekeeping helicopter crash in Egypt | Progressives warn Biden against Defense nominee with contractor ties | Trump executive order to ban investment in Chinese military-linked companies MORE (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the House bill, said in a statement. “It is time to tell the truth about what these statues are: hateful symbols that have no place in our society and certainly should not be enshrined in the U.S. Capitol.”

Republican congressional leaders have maintained that the statues are the responsibility of state legislatures, who commission and donate the statues. Requests for replacement must be approved by a state legislature and signed by a governor, but the Joint Committee can instruct the Architect of the Capitol to remove existing statues.