Replace the Alexander Hamilton Stephens Statue With One of John LewisRoundup
tags: Confederacy, monuments, capitol
Issac J. Bailey is the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy for Davidson College and author of the forthcoming book, Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.
This past week, more than a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, the United States military got around to effectively banning the flag of the Confederacy, a short-lived nation built explicitly on the idea of white supremacy. At roughly the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court was voting to uphold a law in Florida that would require those who had been convicted of felonies and served their time to still pay a fine before they can vote—a fee that would disproportionately burden Black people. And Americans were finding out that Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT in Kentucky, received no medical help for at least 20 minutes after three plainclothes officers killed her during a no-knock raid on the wrong apartment. The officers haven’t been charged with a crime.
Then John Lewis died. With his death, the country lost a civil rights icon, a man whose skull was cracked during a beating on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the hands of a state trooper and went on to become the second Black person to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction.
Amid the news of these past few weeks, it’s easy to feel like Lewis’ legacy might also be dying. That’s why the United States should make a symbolic commitment to the values Lewis nearly died for. First, Alabama should rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a lead member of the Ku Klux Klan, for Lewis instead. But more important, Americans should also look to the heart of the U.S. government, the Capitol, where a statue to Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, still stands. The United States cannot be a country that honors both Stephens and Lewis; after this summer, after the death of Lewis, Americans have to make a choice. And it should begin with replacing the Stephens statue with one honoring Lewis.
Like Lewis, Stephens was also a Georgia legislator. Elected in 1843 as a Whig, he gradually began voting with Democrats in the following decades. He was elected as a delegate to the Georgia Secession Convention, established as a response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, in 1861. That same year, he was chosen by the Congress of the Confederacy to be the vice president of the provisional government.
Stephens delivered a speech that remains maybe the clearest distillation of white supremacy ever uttered not long before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861. He argued in the now-infamous “Cornerstone” speech that the founders had it wrong; that there was no real tension between liberty and race-based chattel slavery if science and God’s purpose were properly understood. “Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system,” Stephens thundered during the speech.
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