The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol, the latest effort by Congress to respond to the nationwide protests over systemic racism and injustice.
The bill would remove the bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from the old Supreme Court chamber, located in the Capitol. Taney authored the controversial and later widely panned Dred Scott decision in 1857, which declared African Americans weren’t citizens. The Taney bust would be replaced with a statue of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice.
The legislation would also remove three statues of Americans who promoted slavery and white supremacy — Charles Aycock, John C. Calhoun, and James Paul Clarke — and require states to reclaim and replace their Confederate statues in the Capitol. Currently, there are 12 Confederate statues in the Capitol collection.
“Today will be a historic day in the history of the Congress of the United States and of our country,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “The House is taking a long overdue and historic step to ensure that individuals we honor in our Capitol represent our nation’s highest ideals and not the worst in its history.”
Despite overwhelming support in the House, it’s unclear if the GOP-controlled Senate will take up the legislation. Senate Republican leaders have so far declined to take action on the issue, saying it is up to states to replace the statues they send to the Capitol. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment on whether the chamber will consider the House bill.
It’s also unclear if President Donald Trump would sign the bill given that he has used Confederate symbolism as a cause célèbre to rally his supporters in recent weeks.
And while lawmakers in both parties cheered the bill Thursday, the move still falls far short of advocates’ demands for police reform following nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd. The House passed a sweeping police reform bill last month while the Senate failed to take action, meaning the issue is likely on the congressional back burner until after the election.
Still, Democratic leaders heralded the passage of the Confederate statues removal bill as an important step and a tribute to the late Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who died last Friday.
“The main honor for Mr. Lewis, to me, is to get a signature on the Voting Rights Act. But this is also a way to honor his legacy because what he fought for every day is the exact opposite of the symbols,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Personally, as a black lawmaker, the presence of these statues represent an acceptance of white supremacy and racism,” Bass added.
Each state is allowed to donate two statues to the Capitol collection to “honor persons notable in their history.” And while multiple states have removed or taken steps to remove statues honoring Confederate sympathizers, a dozen statues still currently remain including Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy.
Stephens is prominently featured in Statuary Hall, just steps from the House chamber, as is a statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, from Mississippi. But already some House lawmakers and political leaders in Georgia have started talking about replacing the Stephens statue with one of Lewis, an idea that has received bipartisan support in the Peach State.
The statues bill isn’t the only recent action the House has taken on the issue. The House passed its annual defense policy bill Tuesday, which included provisions removing the names of Confederate leaders from military bases. More than 100 Republicans backed the bill in direct defiance of Trump, who has threatened to veto the legislation because he opposes renaming the military bases. The Senate is considering its own version this week.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi also removed four portraits of former speakers who served in the Confederacy from around the House chamber last month.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking African American in Congress, praised passage of the statues bill on Wednesday and said the monuments should be moved to museums for future Americans to study.
“When people say, ‘symbols of heritage are not hate,’ I say to them, ‘hate is a heritage depending on what side of history you are on,” Clyburn said.
“Nobody is talking about destroying statues,” Clyburn continued. “No matter how ill-fated it may be, I do not advocate and don’t want anybody tearing down any statutes. …Put them in a museum.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this story.