Jefferson Davis — the slave holder, the secessionist, the leader of a would-be nation founded on the principle of white supremacy — stands tall, shoulders back, eyes gazing wistfully outwards, in the rotunda of the Capitol of the United States of America.
This bronze likeness of Davis — constructed in 1928, and donated to the Capitol by the state of Mississippi — is just one of several such statues of historical figures with Confederate ties on display in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
"According to legislation enacted in 1864, each state sends two statues to the Capitol, where they are spread out among the Rotunda, the House and Senate wings, and the Capitol Visitor Center," explains House Speaker John Boehner in a tourist pamphlet. "The statues commemorate Americans from all walks of life and chapters of our history: there are founders, statesmen, religious leaders, military heroes, and even royalty."
All walks of life: slave owners, white supremacists, and Confederate generals. Robert E. Lee and John C. Calhoun stand alongside Helen Keller and Barry Goldwater in the collection.
The shooting death of nine in Charleston last week has started a national debate over whether Confederate symbols should be honored in public spaces. In South Carolina, where the attack occurred, there's a growing consensus that the Confederacy's most recognizable symbol, the battle flag, does not belong on public grounds. To many, it's a symbol of racial oppression, flown by white supremacists for decades in the name of anti-black terror. "This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said when she called for the flag's removal.