Politics Push to Remove Confederate Statues From Capitol Faces Hurdles
Confederate statues: In 2020, a renewed battle in America’s enduring Civil War
Reaction to George Floyd’s death leads to a concerted attack on symbols of the Confederacy . But that shift is now plain to see in places large and small, in numbers well beyond similar actions that followed the 2015 mass murder at a black church in Charleston, S.C., and the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville. “It does look like there’s critical mass now and maybe people are listening in a way they didn’t before,” said Karen Cox, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who is writing a book on Confederate monuments.
WASHINGTON—The effort to remove statues from the U.S. Capitol that honor men who served in the Confederacy has gained new momentum in the wake of nationwide protests over racism against African-Americans, but disagreements in Congress and the power of states in selecting the figures could slow the overhaul of the collection.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) quickly removed four portraits of former speakers who served in the Confederacy, saying on Thursday that they betrayed the nation and should not be honored. She had them taken off the walls that afternoon. She and other Democratic lawmakers also want to remove a dozen Confederate-linked statues, but that is proving harder, due to disagreements with Republicans and current law that gives each state control over its two statues.
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Removing the statues, which include likenesses of leaders of the Confederacy as well as prominent figures who backed it, “is a part of fixing and eliminating those vestiges of systemic racism,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D., Miss.), one of the lead sponsors of House legislation seeking to remove them. “Paying homage to those 12 Confederate statues on the hallowed grounds of the Capitol is an insult.”
Several states have already lined up replacement statues, including some honoring civil-rights figures, for the Capitol’s hallways, rotunda and Statuary Hall. Arkansas plans to add Daisy Gatson Bates, who helped integrate Little Rock schools, to replace a supporter of the Confederacy, while singer Johnny Cash will succeed a governor who espoused white supremacy. Florida is swapping in a statue of educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune for a Confederate general.
Mississippi faces reckoning on Confederate emblem in flag
The young activists who launched a protest movement after George Floyd’s death are bringing fresh energy to a long-simmering debate about the Confederate battle emblem that white supremacists embedded within the Mississippi state flag more than 125 years ago. Anti-racism protests have toppled Confederate statues and monuments across the United States in recent days, and even NASCAR banned the display of the rebel flag. But Mississippi has been a holdout for years in displaying the emblem in the upper-left corner of its banner.
Bates and Bethune would be the first African-Americans honored among the 100 people in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Congress previously added statues of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but they aren’t part of the states’ collection.
The House could vote as soon as July on the bill to remove the 12 Confederate-tied statues, said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.). He is also planning to bring up legislation that would remove a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, which held black Americans weren’t citizens.
“It is a symbol of slavery, of sedition first, of action against the nation,” Mr. Hoyer said in an interview, referring to the statues.
The Democrats’ legislation is likely to go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. An effort by Senate Democrats to pass a bill by unanimous consent was blocked last week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said he was open to the separate idea of changing the names of military facilities named for Confederate figures, but the statues should be left up to the states.
When the Toppled Statue Is of Your Great-Great-Great-Grandfather
Clayton Wickham, 28, said he used to think of the statue of his great-great-great-grandfather as “just a statue that had my name on it that was kind of cool to walk by every now and then.” But as Mr. Wickham learned more about his ancestor, the statue became a source of discomfort, and then of shame. And so when protesters in Richmond, Va., recently tore down the bronze statue of Williams Carter Wickham, a Confederate general and plantation owner, Mr. Wickham was glad to see it fall.Not all the Wickhams were happy. But, like for Robert E. Lee IV, a great-great-great-great-nephew of the Confederate general, and Frank Rizzo Jr.
“What I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol and scrub out anybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery,” Mr. McConnell told reporters this week. “As far as the statues are concerned, every state gets two. Any state can trade out,” he said.
Many of the contested statues were installed around the turn of the last century, when Southern states were making fresh efforts to suppress black citizens’ rights and burnish the image of the Confederacy.
“The iconography to celebrate this resistance to racial equality, this rejection of equal treatment of black people was an important part of the cultural narrative that white supremacists used,” said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is focused on ending mass incarceration and racial injustice. “Turning the insurgents who rebelled against the United States into heroes was a really clear part of that.”
Other states are moving ahead with changes. In Virginia, Rep. Jennifer Wexton joined with fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin to push their state legislature to swap out the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam backs the idea, and the state has begun a formal process to remove it.
Confederate flag losing prominence 155 years after Civil War
Long a symbol of pride to some and hatred to others, the Confederate battle flag is losing its place of official prominence 155 years after rebellious Southern states lost a war to perpetuate slavery. Mississippi's Republican-controlled Legislature voted Sunday to remove the Civil War emblem from the state flag, a move that was both years in the making and notable for its swiftness amid a national debate over racial inequality following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Mississippi's was the last state flag to include the design.
“I’m glad that people are waking up to the fact that these monuments were not erected to honor our history, they were erected to rewrite history and to intimidate black Americans,” Ms. Wexton said.
North Carolina plans to replace its statue of Charles Aycock, who called blacks inferior and pursued white supremacist policies while governor in the early 1900s, with one of the Rev. Billy Graham.
In Georgia, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R., Ga.) backed a resolution introduced in the state legislature by state Rep. Scot Turner calling for the state to replace the statue of Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, with one of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“You have two men who are known for being powerful orators, but their messages could not be more disparate,” said Mr. Turner, a Republican.
Some of the people represented in the statues served both the Confederacy and the U.S., which some Republicans said complicates matters. Rep. Mo Brooks (R., Ala.) defended Joseph Wheeler, honored in one of the statues that represents his state. Wheeler fought for the Confederacy as a young man but decades later led U.S. forces in the Spanish-American War.
“He fought for his country against invading forces and he was so well respected after the war that the United States president made him a general,” he said.
Alabama’s other statue is of Helen Keller, who advocated for deaf and blind people. Her statue was swapped in for that of a Confederate figure about a decade ago.
Write to Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com
Why Does Trump Want to Refight the Battle of Charlottesville? .
The president returns to his defense of Confederate statues.And yet Trump has oddly decided to revisit the theme. He is not invoking the “very fine people on both sides,” but he is emphasizing his original defense of Confederate memorials. Trump is not only denouncing protesters who are pulling down various statues — some of them honoring anti-slavery icons — his supporters are claiming that he was right all along to defend the Lee statue.