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A way to keep the late John Lewis as the ‘conscience of Congress’

President Barack Obama said of John  Lewis: “He loved this country so much that he risked his life and its blood so that it might live up to its promise."  Photo by STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
President Barack Obama said of John Lewis: “He loved this country so much that he risked his life and its blood so that it might live up to its promise." Photo by STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

John Lewis served 33 years in Congress, often serving as its conscience. There is a way to keep him there, even in death.

Remove the figure of Alexander Stephens, the first and only vice president of the Confederacy, from National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Replace him with Lewis.

Perhaps as a young, trench-coated figure about to receive a blow from a police baton. Or sprawled on the U.S. House floor, leading a sit-in against gun violence as a 76-year-old man. Or behind a banner, walking point on march after march after march -- during any one of seven decades.

As a matter of politics, it is Georgia’s choice. As a matter of history, it would be pure poetry.

Lewis died late Friday at age 80, after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Within hours, an effort to make his presence in the Capitol permanent had already picked up two important fans. Both are Republican and both will be essential to making it happen.

“I like the idea very much. I always admired Congressman Lewis and told him so many times. Georgia has a long history, so much more than just the Civil War, and John Lewis has been an important part of that,” House Speaker David Ralston said Saturday.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, was of the same opinion. “It’s time for our state to be represented in the National Statutory Hall by a figure that aligns with our state’s core values -- that all are created equal -- and I’ll add advocate for that figure to be Rep. John Lewis,” Duncan said.

Stephens served two stints in Congress, one before the Civil War and another afterwards. He was elected governor in 1882 but died shortly afterwards. Stephens was one of several Southern rebels who made it abundantly clear what the Confederacy was all about.

In an 1861 speech in Savannah, Stephens denounced the Declaration of Independence’s contention that “all men are created equal” and promised that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy would be white supremacy.

Each state is permitted two statues in the U.S. Capitol. Crawford Long, the Georgia physician who first put ether to use in surgery, was added in 1926. (Long has his own historical problems, but set that aside for now.)

The next year, the all-white General Assembly voted to also make Stephens a marble emissary to Washington. It was a political statement made in a decade that many consider to be the high watermark of Jim Crow and black voter suppression in the South – the very thing that John Lewis was born to fight.

In January, state lawmakers can authorize Stephens’ exit to a quiet museum and replace him with a man who did so much to shape the modern South.

Only last month, state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, introduced a measure that called for the removal of Stephens’ statue. But House Bill 1551 would have replaced it with a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. (who already has a bust in the building).

FILE - In this June 24, 2015 file photo, a statue of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederate vice president throughout the American Civil War, is on display in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif is calling for the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol as the contentious debate over the appropriateness of such memorials moves to the halls of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this June 24, 2015 file photo, a statue of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederate vice president throughout the American Civil War, is on display in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif is calling for the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol as the contentious debate over the appropriateness of such memorials moves to the halls of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Credit: Susan Walsh

Credit: Susan Walsh

The bill went nowhere. Its chief Democratic co-sponsor, state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, removed his name from the bill. His Republican partner was in the midst of a feud with Ralston, and Williams did not want to put himself between the two gentlemen.

The bill is dead, and Turner has decided not to run for re-election. But the idea is sure to be revived. I asked Williams if he would be willing to substitute the name of John Lewis for MLK.

Congress, Williams noted, was Lewis’ domain. “I think it would be a great idea and I would support it 100%,” he said. Williams, incidentally, is 72 and the only member of the Legislature left who accompanied Lewis and King on that famous Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965 -- the one that began with a bloody trip over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “I didn’t have to read about it in a book. I was there,” he said.

Williams has an engraved invitation to restart the debate over removing the statue of Alexander Stephens when lawmakers return for the 2021 session. “If Representative Williams introduces a bill in January and it has John Lewis’ name on it, he’ll have the backing of the Speaker’s office,” Ralston told me.

Even if he’ll no longer be in office, Williams will also have the support of Scot Turner, the Republican who introduced HB 1551 in June. “That would be sweet. There’s a certain poetic justice to having a civil rights leader replacing the guy who authored the ‘cornerstone’ speech,” Turner said.

Also chiming in on Saturday was U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, who is likewise not seeking re-election in November. “I can think of no better statue in the U.S. Capitol for the state of Georgia than John Lewis,” Graves said.

As for Lewis, we’re told he loathed that statue of Stephens as contrary to what his country stood for. In 2015, days after the massacre of nine Black worshipers at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., the Atlanta congressman called for its removal.

Three years earlier, Lewis had been the keynote speaker at the unveiling of a marker at the Capitol, which noted that the seat of America’s government had been built by slaves. He specifically pointed to the grey marble columns of Statuary Hall.

“They quarried the stone in Maryland and sailed ships or barges many miles down the Potomac River,” Lewis said. “Somehow, they carried them several miles through the streets, perhaps using wagons and mules or horses -- and then hoisted them up.”

For John Lewis, the heavy lifting is over. It is our turn to hoist him up.

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