Confederates in the Capitol: Honoring Questionable Leaders in the American South

This past weekend, social justice advocates scored a major – if somewhat symbolic – victory when the Confederate flag was, finally, removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol building.  The flag – which contrary to belief had only flown outside the building since 1961, and had been raised not in honor of the Confederate dead but as a rebuke to the growing Civil Rights Movement then sweeping through the South – represented a glorification of white supremacy, segregation and terror that didn’t end in 1865, but continued well into the 20th century (and, indeed, into the 21st in different forms).  Removing that flag, which had long been a source of controversy and pain, was a vital first step in finally addressing the legacy of the Confederacy and white supremacy in American history. The flag, though, was not the only example of Confederate symbolism and glorification within state capitols in the United States.

Virginia 13
Old Virginia Legislature, Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, VA

The photograph to the left is of the Old House of Delegates in the Virginia State Capitol – the first legislative chamber in a building originally designed by Thomas Jefferson himself (an early Governor of the state of Virginia, during the Revolution). The chamber has been converted into a museum of statuary honoring some of Virginia’s most notable natives; Patrick Henry – the state’s first Governor and a major figure of the Revolution – figures prominently, as does John Marshall, a massively influential former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court; Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the McCormick Reaper; and Meriwether Lewis, one half of the leadership of the Lewis and Clark expedition into the Louisiana Territory in 1803. But none of those statues are the most obvious, or the most striking: that honor belongs to the statue pictured at the top of the post, that of Robert E. Lee.



And Lee is far from the only Confederate honored at the Virginia State House; that same room features busts of several Confederate leaders including General Joe Johnston and former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who – while he was a staunch defender of slavery, once famously referring to it as the ‘cornerstone’ of the Confederacy – was not actually from Virginia (he was from Georgia). Confederate President Jefferson Davis is honored in that room as well, though he too was not a Virginian. The grounds features a prominent statue of Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.Lee is, of course, a revered figure – in Virginia specifically and in the South generally. He has often been depicted as the ultimate Southern gentleman, and many take pains to point out that he was against secession, only joining the Confederate cause after his home state seceded in spring of 1861, or that he often declared a distaste for slavery (though this didn’t really stop him from owning slaves). He is honored with statues throughout the South, and remains a popular figure; a poll as recent as 1996 still saw a large majority of Americans rank Lee as admirable. Lee has taken on the stuff of legend, to the point where the statue on Virginia’s capitol is actually greater than life size, standing a full five inches taller than Lee himself did.


Texas 19
Monument to Confederate War Dead, Texas Capitol, Austin, TX

Even the US Capitol itself is not immune.  Statuary Hall – a central focal point visited by hundreds of tourists daily and in the center of American power – is full of statues of men who tried with all their might to leave the country.  As each state is allowed to send two statues for display, the US Capitol now contains statues of Davis, Lee, and Stephens; several Confederate generals are honored, including Edward Kirby Smith, who continued to fight for weeks after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox; James George, later the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court; and Zebulon Vance, who actually returned to the US Senate in 1879.  It contains a statue of Confederate soldier and later Governor of South Carolina Wade Hampton, instrumental in overturning gains by African Americans during Reconstruction and paving the way for Jim Crow.  Several of these statues were created by the sculptor of Mount Rushmore itself.He is also not the only Confederate whose statue graces a State Capitol. Jefferson Davis can also be seen inside the capitols of Alabama in Montgomery (the first Confederate capital), and Kentucky (where he appears just feet from a statue of Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln, and appears to be staring menacingly at Lincoln’s back).  Almost every former Confederate state’s capitol has a prominent reference to the Confederacy itself, including many monuments to Confederate War dead such as the one in Austin Texas.

Arkansas 15
Bust of Orval Faubus, Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock, AR

And that’s just the Confederates; statues and portraits of men who defended segregation – sometimes with terror and force – can be found throughout the South, sometimes quite near statues, portraits and plaques honoring heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  In Arkansas’ capitol at Little Rock, for example, one can find inside a bust of segregationist Governor Orval Faubus, while outside on the grounds one can see a stirring monument to the Little Rock Nine, who Faubus tried desperately to keep out of school.


So what should be done about this? There are all sorts of things right with taking down these symbols honoring men who defended the ideas of hatred, supremacy, and slavery. It is, at the least, preposterous that any government – national, state or local – should in any way honor a traitor to the United States, which every Confederate leader was by definition (though not a single one was ever found guilty of that charge, incredibly). But what about those statues, like Faubus’s?

Tennessee 15
Bust of Confederate General and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville, TN

This has already become an issue in several states.  Even before Dylann Roof’s act of terror in Charleston, the Alabama State Capitol moved the portraits of segregationist Governors George and Lurleen Wallace from a central point of prominence. The city of Memphis ended a long and controversial struggle to rename and repurpose Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, named for a Confederate General, KKK supporter, and all-around horrendous human. The Tennessee State Capitol still contains a bust of his, prominently displayed (or at least it did when I was there in 2013). Yale University has seen calls to rename its Calhoun College, named for John C. Calhoun, a former US Vice President and Senator from South Carolina who was a deep defender of slavery, though he died before the Confederacy ever existed.


In the end, whatever is done with these statues and commemorations, the country is richer for having had these debates.  More people in the country today know, or at least have been confronted with, the reality of Confederate racism than there were before. Southern states are having at times cathartic discussions over what these things really mean. Descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners are all trying to grapple with each others’ vision of what the Confederate past means. What we’ll remember, in the end, is not which statues were taken down and which were left up, but what we learned about our country in the process.

The myth of a post-racial America continues in some quarters, but it is weaker today than it has been since the election of President Obama in 2008. This debate is helping us realize how far we have to go, and how deeply these ideas – racism, slavery, and white supremacy – are embedded in the very genetic code of our nation. That can only be a good thing.


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