Georgia politicians want John Lewis statue to replace Confederate leader in Capitol

A statue of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederate vice president throughout the Civil War, has been on display in the Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol since 1927, A number of top politicians in Georgia have joined in a bipartisan effort to replace it with a likeness of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Credit: Susan Walsh

Credit: Susan Walsh

Georgia’s top leaders have embraced the idea of removing the figure of Alexander Stephens from the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and replacing him with a likeness of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Shortly after the civil rights icon’s funeral ended Thursday, most of Georgia’s congressional delegation signed letters to Gov. Brian Kemp and state legislative leaders pushing to swap out the statue of Stephens, a white supremacist who was the vice president of the Confederacy.

“I can think of no better statue in the U.S. Capitol representing our state than one of John Lewis,” wrote U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, one of the most senior members of Georgia’s delegation. “Our nation lost a giant, and it’s up to us to work together so that John’s fight for justice and equality continues.”

Added U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany: “There is no better Georgian we could choose to represent our state in our nation’s Capitol than our beloved friend, colleague, and hero, John Robert Lewis.”

The move would require the approval of Kemp and the General Assembly. The governor endorsed the idea in a tweet posted late Wednesday, saying that swapping Stephens’ statue with Lewis would “celebrate his legacy of service for years to come.”

Legislative leaders previously made clear they support the switch. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, both signaled their support shortly after Lewis’ July 17 death.

“I like the idea very much,” Ralston said. “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.”

Duncan said in an earlier statement that it’s “time for our state to be represented in the National Statuary Hall by a figure that aligns with our state’s core values — that all are created equal — and I’ll advocate for that figure to be Rep. John Lewis.”

Each state gets two statues in the Statuary Hall, and Stephens has represented Georgia since 1927 at the U.S. Capitol. Georgia’s other honoree, Crawford W. Long, was a 19th century physician who pioneered the use of ether in surgery.

(A bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was later added to the Capitol by an act of Congress, but it’s not one of the state’s two official statues.)

A prominent Georgia politician, Stephens was a secessionist who was elected vice president of the Confederacy in 1861. In his famous “Cornerstone Speech,” he called slavery the “natural and normal condition” of black people.

The letter urging the removal of Stephens’ statue was signed by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, and nine Georgia members of the U.S. House, including all three Democrats in the delegation.

It was not signed by U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler or U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, two Republicans who are squaring off in a November special election for the Senate seat.

If Stephens’ statue is removed from the U.S. Capitol, his likeness would still be reflected in other prominent places, including the Georgia Statehouse. As Lewis was honored under the Gold Dome on Wednesday, his coffin lay under a life-size portrait of the Confederate leader.

In his famous "Cornerstone Speech," Alexander Stephens called slavery the “natural and normal condition” of black people. In 2017, several of Stephens' relatives sought the removal of his statue from the Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol so "that the descendants of enslaved people no longer walk beneath them at work and on campus."

The Stephens statue at the U.S. Capitol has been a source of controversy for decades, though the calls to remove his image have intensified more recently amid a broader reckoning of the role of Confederate imagery in modern American society.

In 2017, several of Stephens’ relatives wrote an open letter to then-Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative leaders calling for the statue to be removed so “that the descendants of enslaved people no longer walk beneath them at work and on campus.”

And Lewis and other Democrats had long called for the removal of the monument honoring Stephens.

In a 2015 interview, Lewis said that the statue has bothered him for a long time, particularly when he had to explain to touring students that a Confederate leader who fought to secede from the Union represents Georgia in the Capitol.

“It’s the beginning of a movement that will help us move toward the realization that we’re one people, we’re one nation,” Lewis said in the interview, “and we have to be sensitive to our own history.”

Staff writers Jim Galloway and Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.

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