State lawmakers recently filed legislation to replace Mississippi’s two statues of white supremacists in the U.S. Capitol in Washington — a move that would follow the lead of several other Southern states.
House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, a Democrat from Natchez, filed a resolution to replace statutes of Jefferson Davis and J.Z. George in the U.S Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection with statues of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer and Hiram Revels, the first African American to serve in Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, a Democrat from Greenville, filed a measure to create a commission to select replacements for the Davis and George statues.
“I just don’t think having statues that represent the Confederacy is a correct representation of who Mississippi is,” Johnson said. “And I just think it’s time for change.”
Each U.S. state is allowed to place two statues of people “illustrious for their historic renown” or “distinguished civil or military services,” after Congress passed a federal law in the mid-nineteenth century establishing the national collection.
Around 3 to 5 million people pass through the collection in the Capitol each year, according to the Architect of the Capitol’s website, to glance at who are supposed to be the country’s most reputable figures.
But the leaders of the Magnolia State, who often boast about Mississippi’s literary, musical and artistic impact on the country, continue to honor the legacy of two slave owners who actively worked to maintain the white power structure of their day.
Both Davis and George were leaders of the Confederacy, and their vivid racism is well documented.
Davis served in the U.S. House and Senate from Mississippi before becoming the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, which fought to preserve slavery. Davis later said in a speech to the Mississippi Legislature that if he had the chance to change any of his past actions about secession, he would not do anything differently.
George was a member of Mississippi’s Secession Convention in 1861, and he signed the secession ordinance that included these words: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
George served in the Confederate Army and was also the architect of the 1890 Constitution that sought to reestablish white supremacy in the state and disenfranchise Black citizens from voting or holding elected office.
The Mississippians who initially honored George and Davis with statutes also had ties to the Confederacy or sympathized with the Confederacy.
A columnist at the time interviewed David Bramlette Jr., one of the men who selected Davis and George, and invited all Mississippians to attend the unveiling ceremony in Washington. The column specifically noted that “general officers of the Confederate organization” were invited to attend.
The article went on to quote Bramlette saying the reason the state honored George with a statue was because he was a “great constitutional lawyer and a leader in the preservation of the white, Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”
Many Southern states have replaced their original statues of Confederate leaders with more inclusive figures. Alabama, in 2009, replaced a statue of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, a Confederate officer, with one of Helen Keller, a political activist and disability rights advocate.
Arkansas is in the process of replacing statues of Uriah Milton Rose, a Confederate sympathizer, and James Paul Clarke, a former U.S. senator, with statues of civil rights activist Daisy Bates and musician Johnny Cash.
Florida, in 2016, approved a measure to replace Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and founder of a Florida university.
Virginia, in 2020, removed Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the collection and plans to replace it with civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns.
To change a statue, federal law requires a majority of lawmakers in both legislative chambers to vote to approve the replacement, and the state is required to pay for the costs of replacing the two statues.
Mississippi’s Republican committee leaders in the House and Senate were noncommittal about Johnson and Simmons’ proposals to change out the Davis and George statues.
House Speaker Jason White referred Johnson’s proposal to two committees for consideration: the House Rules Committee and the House State Affairs Committee. The measure must pass both committees before the entire House can consider it.
House Rules Committee Chairman Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, said he did not know much about the National Statuary Hall Collection, but that he would review Johnson’s proposal.
Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann referred Simmons’ proposal to the Senate Rules Committee, which is led by Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.
“I’ll probably poll the committee and see where we are,” Kirby said. “If I see that it’s a real negative, I probably will not bring it up.”
Both Johnson and Simmons said they are open to suggestions for who should replace Mississippi’s statues, but they want it to honor someone who is more representative of a modern-day Mississippi.
“I want two individuals that when my children who are 5 and 10 can look back 50 years from now and they will say those two representations of Mississippi are still positive representations of Mississippi,” Simmons said. “The unfortunate thing is we can’t say that now.”
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