When a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks was unveiled in the Capitol's Statuary Hall in late February, it joined an exclusive club. The collection includes generals and statesmen, inventors and priests—as well as some of the most notorious leaders of a five-year armed insurrection that left 600,000 people dead in the name of protecting white Americans' rights to own black Americans as slaves. What all the people portrayed in Statuary Hall have in common, with few exceptions, are two things: They are white, and they are men.
There is one Latino represented in the collection today. There are six American Indians, one Hawaiian, and zero African Americans. (Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are both featured as part of a separate collection.) If it were any less diverse it would look like the Senate. But if the Architect of the Capitol is uncomfortable with the composition of its collection, it has an odd way of showing it. The biographies of the collection's most notorious members make no mention of their hard-earned legacies perpetuating and reinforcing a culture of white supremacy.
That place of honor is just too good for the likes of Douglass, or say, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. But Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens keep their spots. There's also Zebulon Vance, North Carolina's Confederate governor during the Civil War and again in the 1870s when he was instrumental in destroying Reconstruction.
Other white supremacist statues in the collection not in the Rotunda include another North Carolinian, Charles Aycock, who helped destroy interracial politics in the Fusion Period of the late 1800s. There is Civil War Gen. Wade Hampton, who helped smash Reconstruction efforts in the postwar period in South Carolina. Slavery apologist and secession proselytizer John C. Calhoun of South Carolina has a place as well, although he at least died well before the war. And General Robert E. Lee of Virginia is there ... standing tall in his Rebel uniform.
The reasons the 100-piece collection got to be what it is—mostly white, mostly male and packed with Rebel traitors—and why it's mostly been kept that way gets full treatment from Murphy, and I urge you to read the piece beginning to end. But the short version is that there's an over-representation of men who made their bones in and around the Civil War era because the legislation establishing Statuary Hall was passed in 1864. And the unrepentant postwar leaders of the old Confederacy were eager to use the two statues each state is allotted to honor the men who had led the blood-drenched fight to maintain slavery. How these sculptures were kept from being vandalized at a time when one-legged, one-eyed Union veterans still lived is a wonderment.
Please continue reading about this outrageous display below the fold.
a destroyer of Reconstruction.
Bad enough that these statues weren't excluded in the first place. But the mini-bios accompanying them sanitize the records of these men, some of whom were outright criminals above and beyond their treason. It's not just hoary inertia at work either. As Murphy points out, just 20 years ago when the Florida House of Representatives agreed to take out the state's statue of Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith and replace him with World War II hero James Van Fleet, the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied the state senate to dump the proposal.
Some may argue that none of this matters. These statues, after all, depict historical figures of importance in the nation's history. True enough. But there is a difference between having statues of them in Washington, D.C., museums or ranged around the Confederate Memorial in Arlington cemetery where they can look out over the Rebel war dead. Nobody is suggesting their life stories be removed from our textbooks.
But how about moving Jeff Davis and Alexander Stephens and the rest of this crew to some corner that only the custodians see? Or ship them home and let them stand guard in the capitols in Jackson, Atlanta, Raleigh and Columbia (the latter a place where a version of the Rebel battle flag still flies on the capitol grounds). A century and a half after the Civil War, more than 90 years after women got the right to vote, nearly 50 years since the Civil Rights Act, surely the states whose legislatures sit in these cities can find more appropriate representatives.