The march by white supremacists in Charlottesville this month has intensified a discussion that’s been developing for some time: Do statues passively represent the past, or do they actively inform present-day politics? As a tour guide in D.C., this is what I work with daily. Who we are as Americans and the quest for a “more perfect union” are constantly being redefined and are reflected in the statuary and other memorials in our nation’s civic space.
No other place brings this discussion into a sharper focus than the epicenter of American democracy, the U.S. Capitol. More than 100 statues in the Capitol depict famous Americans, each selected by a state legislature to stand in the Statuary Hall and throughout the building; a rough dozen of those celebrated Americans are former Confederates. A conversation that I’ve quietly had with other guides and visitors for more than a decade has now shifted to the public sphere.
As I bring visitors to the Capitol and ask them to find the statues that represent their state, I’ve had to wrestle with some of the states’ choices. I distinctly remember working with a group of largely white middle-school boys from Jackson, Miss. Without much conscious thought, I asked them to find out who represented their state, as I generally do. Mississippi is represented by two Confederates, including Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. I pointed out the irony of the leader of a rebellion that explicitly rejected the stated values of the Capitol having a statue in that same building.
But for these students, there was no irony. They, and their teachers, responded that a lot of people were still proud of Davis and that he defended their home from Northern aggression. Sensing a storm brewing, the head teacher gently directed me away from the topic with a, “Well, we’re all Americans now.” Not wanting to argue with a client, I let the matter drop, leaving my “only because he lost” retort unspoken.
For me, this was a largely whimsical mild frustration. Then I caught the eye of one of the handful of African American students on the trip. He said nothing, but I would have very much liked to know what he was thinking. The few of my ancestors who were in America at the time helped defeat the Confederacy and returned home to build their lives. Obviously, his ancestors’ experience would have been different, but he didn’t have the same liberty to laugh the subject off.
Since then, as I’ve guided, it’s become increasingly intolerable to me that people who fought against our nation on behalf of an ideology that denied the humanity of millions of other Americans get to be honored in the same way as Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, yes, slaveholders like Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Democrats in Congress are bothered by it, too. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called upon House Speaker Ryan Ryan (R-Wis.) “to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced that he will introduce a bill to do the same.
But while I would love to send these statues packed up, congressional lawmakers shouldn’t be the ones to do it.
Each state, through its legislature, chooses to send two statues to the Capitol. Only the simplest guidance is given: They must be made of marble or bronze, and the subject must be deceased. This is a state’s chance to examine its history and ask some tough questions. Which two people incorporate the values that New York, California or Mississippi hold dear? What accomplishments do we venerate? And what compromises with an often-troubled past must we make? In short, who are we?
It’s an elegant challenge, and it’s evocative of how we govern. Power doesn’t derive from Washington; it is sent by the people to Washington to (ideally) govern well. Likewise, Congress doesn’t choose who represents America’s history; the American people do through their state legislatures. It’s representative democracy in marble and bronze.
The two-statue restriction forces an economy not often present in a park or in front of a county courthouse. If a state chooses a traitor who fought a bloody war to preserve slavery, then that removes an opportunity to celebrate someone else. It’s not a consequence-free decision. I grew up in the South, albeit as a transplanted Yankee. A persistent criticism from white Southerners is that the rest of the nation views them as backward, as a bunch of racist rednecks. This is entirely fair criticism, but I ask to be met halfway in addressing it. If you don’t wish to be viewed as racist, don’t choose racists to represent you.
Take Georgia, represented by Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens. He explicitly articulated slavery as the cornerstone of his new country, proclaiming their “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.”
I can’t begin to imagine the feelings of a descendant of slavery visiting the Capitol who looks upon the face of a man who proudly referred to the visitor’s ancestors as an inferior race, consigning them to brutality and humiliation. I wouldn’t tell the visitor to accept it. But this is who Georgia is; this is who Georgians think best represents them. If they’re better than this, it’s up to them to actually be better than this.
Congress has already moved to save these states from some of the consequences of their decisions, but it’s time to stop. King is proudly displayed in the Capitol Rotunda, not as a representative of Georgia but rather directly commissioned by Congress. This means Georgia, as a state, said that the words of Stephens spoke for them, not the words of King. Similarly, Parks sits in Statuary Hall, but not as an Alabamian. That honor is reserved for Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler. Georgia and Alabama get to keep their Confederates without hard questions as to why famous civil rights leaders are left out.
It was right and proper that federal power was used to end slavery on American soil. And it was right and proper to use that power again to advance the new birth of freedom promised by Abraham Lincoln and all too often reneged on. But today, Southerners need to decide if they want to be represented by a legacy of hate. We, as a country, can’t save them from themselves. Only they can decide who they are.
It would be a powerful statement if the same state legislatures that seceded from the Union and enacted Black Codes chose to repudiate that history. It would be equally powerful if they resisted and fought that repudiation. The choice, by law, is theirs. And we are watching.