Opinion: Slowly but surely, the Confederate retreat continues

The statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens sits in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. It is one of two statues placed in the Capitol by the state of Georgia.

Combined ShapeCaption
The statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens sits in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. It is one of two statues placed in the Capitol by the state of Georgia.

The Confederate Army was long ago vanquished on the battlefield by Union military forces. But on Capitol Hill, their leaders continue to hold on to prominent places of honor.

Under a federal law signed by President Lincoln during the Civil War, each state gets to place two statues of home-state heroes in the U.S. Capitol.

Those statues give great insight into how states view their own history. Utah has a statue of the ‘father of television.’ Florida has a statue of the inventor of the ice machine. Hawaii honors the religious leader of a leper colony. New Mexico salutes a 17th-century Pueblo figure. Tennessee honors Andrew Jackson. Various states from New England have statues to mark the Founding Fathers.

But for a number of southern states, it’s still about the Confederacy, with statues that have been in the Capitol since the 1920′s.

One of those Confederates was replaced this week, when the state of Florida moved on from Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith — whose likeness stood in the Capitol for 99 years — and replaced him with a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of slaves, who became an educator and civil rights activist.

“All of us are in awe of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s extraordinary story,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, noting that Bethune is the first Black American to be honored by any state in the Capitol statue collection.

“How poetic that Dr. Bethune replaces a little-known Confederate general, trading a traitor for a civil rights hero in the Capitol of the United States,” Pelosi added.

Bethune’s statue was placed just across Statuary Hall from the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and steps away from a statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia, who said in his infamous Cornerstone Speech that ‘the negro is not equal to the white man.’

Georgia sent the statue of Stephens to the U.S. Capitol in 1927. It was a different time.

The Georgia Legislature could replace Stephens with someone of note from Georgia’s history at any time.

But year after year, the Stephens statue stays in place, sending the distinct message — intentional or not — that Georgia leaders don’t mind honoring someone who so publicly represented the Confederacy, slavery, and white supremacy.

Six southern states still have Confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol: Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia.

Not on that list is Virginia — which hauled out the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in late 2020.

At some point, the other Confederates will likely get wheeled out. Surely those southern states have someone more distinguished to honor in the U.S. Capitol.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com