John Lewis statue could soon replace Confederate leader in US Capitol

March 2, 2020 - Atlanta - Congressman John Lewis (center) departs the Capitol alongside Rep. Calvin Smyre, D - Columbus, after he signed paperwork to qualify for reelection to his District 5 seat.  A large turnout by both Democrats and Republicans on the first day of election qualifying resulted in long lines of politicians waiting to sign in.   Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
March 2, 2020 - Atlanta - Congressman John Lewis (center) departs the Capitol alongside Rep. Calvin Smyre, D - Columbus, after he signed paperwork to qualify for reelection to his District 5 seat. A large turnout by both Democrats and Republicans on the first day of election qualifying resulted in long lines of politicians waiting to sign in. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

The state legislative effort to remove the figure of Alexander Stephens from the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and replace it with a likeness of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis will begin in earnest on Wednesday with a bipartisan resolution promoting the change.

The measure is to be sponsored by state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, a coalition that symbolizes the consensus behind the push to put a statue of the civil rights hero in place of Stephens, a white supremacist who was the vice president of the Confederacy.

Williams, who collected signatures for the resolution on Wednesday, is among many elected leaders from both sides of the aisle who endorsed the change shortly after Lewis’ funeral in July. U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop and Tom Graves wrote letters advocating the swap, and a coalition of lawmakers quickly joined.

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

The move would require the approval of Gov. Brian Kemp, who has previously backed the idea, and the General Assembly, where it’s expected to easily pass. Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, each expressed their support for the swap shortly after Lewis’ July 17 death.

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

ExploreRemembering John Lewis: The life and legacy of the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon
A statue of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederate vice president throughout the Civil War, is on display in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington.
A statue of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederate vice president throughout the Civil War, is on display in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Credit: Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Credit: Susan Walsh/Associated Press

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.

ExploreOther monuments to honor Congressman John Lewis’ legacy in the works

The 2020 letter urging the removal of Stephens’ statue was signed by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, and nine Georgia members of the U.S. House, including three other Democrats in the delegation.

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 last year, his coffin lay under a life-size portrait of the Confederate leader.

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

July 29, 2020 Atlanta - The flag-draped casket of Congressman John Lewis is surrounded by Phi Beta Sigma fraternity members during Omega Chapter Ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
July 29, 2020 Atlanta - The flag-draped casket of Congressman John Lewis is surrounded by Phi Beta Sigma fraternity members during Omega Chapter Ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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.”

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