Robert E. Lee statue removed from Capitol, but another nine Rebels there should be ditched in 2021

Legislation passed in 1864 just after completion of the Capitol dome allotted each state two choices for whom it wished to honor with sculptures in National Statuary Hall, the Capitol Rotunda, the Crypt, and the Hall of Columns. Several other states, like Virginia, picked notorious Rebels to represent them, with most of these selections made decades after the Civil War during the period of “Lost Cause” whitewashing of the Confederacy’s very reason for being. And though General Lee’s statue and a few others of prominence have been removed, several others, including those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens of the infamous slavery-is-the-natural-order Cornerstone Speech yet remain—because not enough leaders in states that chose these sculptures to display at the Capitol have yet to wise up.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It’s as if a bronze depiction of Gen. Benedict Arnold greeted visitors to the Capitol. Why these men were allowed to be honored with these statues for decades, a century in Lee’s case, why they were permitted to be installed in the first place, and why they are still standing today should be no surprise when some public school textbooks in Texas and other former Confederate states continue the whitewash, downplay the role of slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and otherwise mythologize the version of Southern heritage known as white supremacy.

But a new day is clearly coming. Several states are not only dumping Confederate statues in the Capitol but also replacing them with the likes of African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune and Ponca Chief Standing Bear. Nonetheless, nine Confederate statues are still in the Capitol collection, several of them in full Rebel uniform. And it’s up to the states to make a different choice. 

In the past few years, dozens of Confederate statues have been removed from town plazas and other places of honor, some officially, some by vigilante activists tired of waiting for government action. Statues of Rebel Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Confederate Navy officer Matthew Fontaine Maury have been removed in Richmond, Virginia’s and the Confederacy’s capital, but Robert E. Lee’s statue remains there, entangled in bureaucratic maneuvering. Gov. Northam has proposed a $25 million reimagining of the public space around the statue, which was covered with graffiti in the wake of an outpouring of nationwide protest led by African Americans after yet another police killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis in May. 

In Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, a statute of Jefferson Davis was removed from the rotunda of the state capitol in June this year. It was a case of deplorable sculptural bothsiderism, Davis’s statue being just a few steps away from one of Abraham Lincoln. It was as if a statue of German Gen. Erwin Rommel was paired with one of Gen. George Patton for “balance.” In 2017, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered the removal of three Confederate statues, including ones of Lee, Davis, and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Here’s a key excerpt from his speech on the removal:

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

Confederate President Alexander Stephens, looking all benign in his perch of honor in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens

In the case of Vice President Stephens, who was the choice of Georgia for the Capitol, even some of his descendants want to see the statue gone. His great, great, great grand-nephews—Alexander Stephens and brother Brendan Stephens—wrote a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017 making their wishes in the matter known. Said Alexander at the time,  “It is not as if we grew up idolizing the Confederacy, but it was a state of cognitive dissonance. Slavery was wrong, but maybe some of the people who supported it were not so bad. We were taught to look away from it. It was a family tradition that was passed along.”

In May, I wrote:

When these statues were sent to the Capitol, they represented the racist values their state leaders held dear. They still do. As modern lawmakers in some of the Old Confederacy have discovered, it’s not hard to find appropriate replacements that don’t insult African Americans and other citizens who view these white supremacists as the villainous traitors, not heroes, that they were. Removing them hardly seems too much to ask a century and a half after slavery was officially ended and African Americans were declared to be actual human beings, and 56 years after the Civil Rights Act passed. That any of these statues still perch in places of honor is embarrassing and infuriating in the 21st Century.

If the states won’t make the changes, Congress can.

Once those nine remaining statues are sent off to museums or the scrap heap, Congress can require states in the future to exclude Confederate statues from a place of honor in the Capitol. You would think it would have done that in 1864 or sometime in the nearly 160 years since then.

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