The killings of nine churchgoers in Charleston last week by an alleged white supremacist brought new attention to the Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina state house, and beyond. There are many symbols of the Confederacy and of racist ideology in other capitals -- including the U.S. Capitol.
That starts with the Mississippi state flag, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag and hangs in several locations in the Capitol complex, including in the underground tunnels connecting the Rayburn House Office Building and Dirksen Senate Office Building to the Capitol. It extends to a number of statues in the Capitol itself -- including one of Jefferson Davis, who served as both a congressman and a U.S. senator before becoming president of the Confederate States of America.
The Davis statue is part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, which is established by act of Congress and consists of two statues donated by each state. About a third of the statues, some of them dating back to the early 1870s, stand in Statuary Hall itself; the rest are placed elsewhere in the Capitol complex. Mississippi furnished the Davis statue in 1931, and it now stands in Statuary Hall -- but Davis is far from the only figure associated with the Confederacy or with white supremacism to be commemorated in the collection.
• Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia (1812-1883). As a congressman, he led the fight to preserve slavery in new American territories. As vice president of the Confederacy, he declared, "Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition." His statue is on the east side of Statuary Hall, across from Davis's.
• John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782-1850). Along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, he was one of the "Great Triumvirate" of congressional leaders in the early 19th century. But he infamously defended slavery on the Senate floor as a "positive good," arguing that American slaves had benefited from slavery: "Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually." Calhoun's statue is in the Capitol crypt, one floor underneath the Rotunda.
• Wade Hampton III of South Carolina (1818-1902). Scion of a wealthy slaveholding family, he became a Confederate cavalry general. Then, after the war, he promoted the "Lost Cause" mythology alongside fellow former general Jubal Early and fiercely resisted federal Reconstruction as governor from 1876 to 1879 and for two subsequent Senate terms. He was politically allied with the "Red Shirts," a violent, white-supremacist cabal. Hampton's statue is not in the Capitol proper, but in the underground Capitol Visitor Center.
• Charles Brantley Aycock of North Carolina (1859-1912). Running for governor at the turn of the 20th century, he ran on a platform of disenfranchising black voters and maintaining segregated schools. He once said that in North Carolina, "we have solved the negro problem. … We have taken him out of politics and have thereby secured good government under any party and laid foundations for the future development of both races." Aycock's statue is in the crypt.
Four other statues depict Confederate officers more known for their military prowess than their political views -- including the most famous Confederate of them all, Robert E. Lee of Virginia (1807-1870), who also once wrote, "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things." The others include James Zachariah George of Mississippi (1826-1897), who was a signer of his state's Ordinance of Secession; Edmund Kirby Smith of Florida (1824-1893), who was the last Confederate general to surrender to union forces; and Joseph Wheeler of Alabama (1925-1906), a noted Confederate cavalry general.
So with South Carolina lawmakers seemingly poised to removed the Confederate flag from their state house, is there any chance that last week's violence might lead to the removal of these stone racists from the Capitol?
Probably not -- at least, not any time soon. Because the Statuary Hall Collection is governed by statute, any policy change on who could be represented would have to be made by act of Congress -- which, now more than ever, is no small task. Each state, however, is allowed to swap out its statues so long as the request is approved by the state's legislature and its governor.
Senators -- even those who gladly called upon South Carolina lawmakers to remove their Confederate flag -- treaded lightly when it came to the statues Tuesday. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about the subject, for instance, he noted his dismay that Jefferson Davis was memorialized in the Kentucky State Capitol -- noting that while Davis was born in Kentucky, he moved to Mississippi and Kentucky never officially joined the Confederacy.
"I think it's appropriate certainly in Kentucky to be talking about the appropriateness of continuing to have Jefferson Davis' statue in a very prominent place in our state capitol," he said. "Maybe a better place for that would be the Kentucky History Museum."
As for the U.S. Capitol, McConnell said, "I'm not aware of what we have and what we don't have."
Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was not much more definitive, citing the constraints of the law: "I think that we need to make sure the states understand who they have here," he said.
Asked whether Stephens should continue to represent his state in the Capitol, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said, "You're talking about two different centuries, two different lives, two different environments. Georgia made that decision when they did. South Carolina has made the decision they did this time. Both of them were appropriate for their time."
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), asked about Lee's statue, drew a distinction between statues as symbols of history and the Confederate flag as a symbol of an ideology that "just has no place anymore."
"I don't think we're going to rewrite our history, root and branch," Kaine said. "But the flag is just integrally connected with the celebration of a cause that is just inimical to American values. Having things that recognize pieces of our history ... that's not all bad. In fact, it can even be humbling in a way that is important. We remind ourselves we haven't always been living up to our values."