September 23, 2020

House Votes to Remove Confederate Statues From U.S. Capitol

WASHINGTON — The House voted on Wednesday to banish from the Capitol statues of Confederate figures and leaders who pushed white supremacist agendas, part of a broader effort to remove historical symbols of racism and oppression from public spaces.

The bipartisan vote, 305 to 113, came amid a national discussion about racism and justice that has led to the toppling of Confederate statues across the country and left lawmakers scrutinizing how their predecessors are honored in their own halls. Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month ordered that the portraits of four speakers who served the Confederacy be removed from the ornate hall just outside the House chamber.

“These painful symbols of bigotry and racism — they have no place in our society, and certainly should not be enshrined in the United States Capitol,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California and a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s past time that we end the glorification of men who committed treason against the United States in a concerted effort to keep African-Americans in chains.”

The legislation, spearheaded by Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, would mandate the removal of “all statues of individuals who voluntarily served” the Confederacy. It specifically identifies five statues for removal, including a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the majority Supreme Court opinion in the landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case, which ruled that slaves were not American citizens and could not sue in federal court. Mr. Hoyer’s bill would replace the bust with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.

Also targeted for removal are the statues of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the former vice president who led the pro-slavery faction in the Senate; John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, a former vice president who served as the Confederate secretary of war and was expelled from the Senate for joining for the Confederate Army; Charles Brantley Aycock, the former governor of Delaware and an architect of a violent coup d’état in Wilmington led by white supremacists; and James Paul Clarke, a senator and governor of Arkansas who extolled the need to “preserve the white standards of civilization.”

Each state is allowed to send two statues to the Capitol to be featured in the National Statuary Hall collection, which is typically visited by thousands of tourists every day. Federal law gives state leaders, not members of Congress, the authority to replace them. Because Republican lawmakers have long argued that states should retain that right, House Democrats, even though they are in the majority, have been unable to remove the statues.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, is unlikely to allow the bill to receive a vote in the Senate, calling the move “clearly a bridge too far” and an attempt to “airbrush the Capitol.” He has also contended that the decision should be left to the states, though in 2015 he called for a statue of Jefferson Davis displayed prominently in front of Kentucky’s State Capitol to be moved to a museum.

But in a striking display of bipartisanship, 72 Republicans voted in favor of the measure on Wednesday, arguing that it was an important symbolic step toward reconciliation.

“The history of this nation is so fraught with racial division, with hatred,” said Representative Paul Mitchell, Republican of Michigan, who supported the bill. “The only way to overcome that is to recognize that, acknowledge it for what it is.”

Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and the majority whip, suggested on Wednesday that the statues in the Capitol, once removed, should also be put in a museum. He issued a broad warning against the destruction of Confederate monuments.

“I do not advocate and don’t want anybody tearing down any statues,” Mr. Clyburn said. “I want them put in their proper perspective.”

Some states, responding to local outcries over their representation in Congress, have already moved to replace the statues they sent. Arkansas, for example, is set to replace the statue of Mr. Clarke with a likeness of Johnny Cash.

Democratic lawmakers have agonized for years over the presence of Confederate symbols in the nation’s Capitol. During her last speakership, Ms. Pelosi moved Robert E. Lee from Statuary Hall to a more remote area of the building and placed in his stead a statue of Rosa Parks. In the wake of a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Ms. Pelosi, then the minority leader, called on Speaker Paul D. Ryan to remove the statues.

But the issue never reached the House floor until now, reignited by a sea change in public opinion around issues of race and justice amid nationwide protests in honor of George Floyd, who was killed in May during a confrontation with Minneapolis police, and other Black Americans.

“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,” said Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Statues are not just historical markers but are tributes, a way to honor an individual. These individuals do not deserve to be honored.”