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House votes to remove statues of Confederate leaders from U.S. Capitol

A bust of Chief Justice Roger Taney is displayed in the old Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
A bust of Chief Justice Roger Taney is displayed in the old Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The House on Tuesday passed legislation to remove statues of Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol and replace the bust of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. chief justice who wrote the 1857 Supreme Court decision that said people of African descent are not U.S. citizens.

The vote was 285 to 120, with 67 Republicans joining Democrats in backing the measure. A similar bill passed the House last year on a 305-to-113 vote but did not advance in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans.

Upon reintroducing the bill this year, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) pointed to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, during which some supporters of then-President Donald Trump carried Confederate flags.

“There are still vestiges that remain in this sacred building that glorify people and a movement that embraced that flag and sought to divide and destroy our great country,” Clyburn said. “This legislation will remove these commemorations from places of honor and demonstrate that as Americans we do not celebrate those who seek to divide us.”

The legislation directs the Architect of the Capitol “to remove all statues of individuals who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America.” It specifically mentioned three men who backed slavery — Charles B. Aycock, John C. Calhoun and James P. Clarke.

The legislation would replace the bust of Taney, which sits outside the old Supreme Court chamber on the Capitol’s first floor, with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.

The legislation faces challenges in the evenly divided Senate, where it would have to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Past coverage: House votes to remove Confederate statues from Capitol and replace bust of chief justice who wrote Dred Scott decision

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, tweeted that replacing Confederate statues with monuments honoring Americans who celebrated diversity like Marshall should be a bipartisan effort.

“Hate has no place in our society, let alone in the halls of Congress,” she tweeted. “Let’s join together as Democrats and Republicans to send a stronger message that the people’s House should reflect the very best of America.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) used the floor debate to suggest the Democratic Party is racist.

He argued that many of the statues or items the bill would remove were tributes to Democratic politicians from the past. McCarthy then argued that an academic theory that focuses on systemic racism is itself racist and tied it to today’s Democrats.

“All the statues being removed by this bill are of Democrats,” McCarthy said. He added: “Democrats are desperate to pretend their party has progressed from their days of supporting slavery, pushing Jim Crow laws, and supporting the KKK. But today, the Democrat Party has simply replaced the racism of the past with the racism of critical race theory.”

Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Fox News and other right-leaning media organizations have been heavily covering accusations by some conservatives that teaching about these issues through a racial lens is itself racist.

In a later tweet, McCarthy went further, saying that “the Dem Party has simply replaced the racism of the Klan with the racism of Critical Race Theory.”

McCarthy didn’t explain how an academic theory is similar to the Ku Klux Klan, which was involved in lynchings and violence against Black Americans.

McCarthy, who voted for the bill, also singled out President Biden, who delivered a eulogy for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in 2010. Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s who later renounced his membership in the hate group.

During the House debate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the legislation is an “opportunity to right the wrongs of history, starting here . . . in the U.S. Capitol.”

Other Republicans spoke not in opposition to the bill but rather on the legislative process.

“My opposition to this bill isn’t because of the goal that we’re trying to achieve, but it’s the way the majority continues to skirt procedure,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.). “For the second consecutive Congress, this bill was rushed to the floor without a hearing or markup in the Committee on House Administration.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, said Americans must never forget the country’s “shameful” past in which slavery and segregation were the norm — but that individuals who sought to break up the union to preserve state-permitted racism need not be honored.

“It is long past time to remove from a place of honor in our nation’s Capitol the statues and busts of those who favored war against the United States in support of a so-called government founded on a cornerstone of racism and white supremacy,” Lofgren said.

In 1857, Taney wrote the majority decision in the case of Dred Scott, a Black man born into slavery who used the courts to demand his freedom. Taney’s ruling, which defended slavery and declared that Black people could never become U.S. citizens, came to be viewed as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history.

Taney wrote that at the time of the Constitution’s ratification, Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

A statue of Taney stood outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis until August 2017, when the board of the State House Trust voted to have it removed after the deadly violence at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

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