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.
The issue of whether the statues should remain is less clear. After all, the people they depict are significant historical figures. Their faces have not been used as symbols for white supremacy in the way the rebel flag has.
"I'm trying to deal with the flag and nothing else," Sen. Lindsey Graham told ABC News when asked about his state's contributions to the Capitol's collection, which include the statues of Calhoun, a pro-slave politican, and Wade Hampton, a Confederate military officer.
But if South Carolina determines it would not like those two to represent the state in the Capitol, there is a (long) process for replacing them.
According to the Architect of the Capitol website, for a state to request a statue swap it has to:
1. Make sure the statue in question has been on display for more than 10 years (Davis was placed in 1931. Calhoun in 1910, and Hampton in 1929).
2. Have a request for removal approved by the state's legislature and governor.
3. Select a new person to honor. They have to be deceased, and be "illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services."
4. Select a committee to choose a sculptor. The states are responsible for all costs, including design, construction, transport, and the removal of the previous statue. The statue can be made out of bronze or marble (domestically sourced materials are prefered). The statue can't be more than 11 feet tall or heavier than 5,000 pounds (for a bronze statue) or 10,000 pounds (for a marble statue).
5. Once approved by the state, the request will go to the Joint Committee on the Library for approval. The committee is a collection of representatives and senators who have oversight over the statuary hall collection. Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt is the chairman. This committee also has final approval over the finished product (the state actually has to send it pictures of the completed statue before delivery) and the location of where the statue will stand.
6. Unveiling ceremonies are optional.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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