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July 24, 2020

House votes to remove Confederate statues from Capitol and replace bust of chief justice who wrote Dred Scott decision

Credit: The Washington Post, Felicia Sonmez and Donna Cassata

The House voted Wednesday to remove statues of Confederate leaders from the Capitol and replace the bust of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. chief justice who wrote the Supreme Court decision that said people of African descent are not U.S. citizens.

The vote was 305 to 113 for the bill that would replace the bust of Taney, which sits outside the old Supreme Court chamber on the first floor of the Capitol, with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the Supreme Court.

The legislation also would direct the Architect of the Capitol “to remove all statues of individuals who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America.” It specifically mentioned three men who backed slavery — Charles B. Aycock, John C. Calhoun and James P. Clarke.

Democrats were unified in backing the measure; all the no votes came from Republicans, who were divided with 72 GOP lawmakers voting for the bill and 113 opposed.

The vote comes amid a broader push by Democrats to remove statues, portraits and other art in the U.S. Capitol honoring Confederate leaders and other controversial figures, at a time of national reckoning over systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Pentagon, states and cities, and NASCAR also have taken steps to ban, remove or replace symbols of the Confederacy.

“Defenders and purveyors of sedition, slavery, segregation and white supremacy have no place in this temple of liberty,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.

Hoyer and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) introduced the bill in March

Several Democrats at the news conference said the legislation was a way to honor the late congressman John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died on Friday at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said the purpose of the legislation was to ensure that “all these monuments to a horrific period are not glorified anymore in this Capitol.”

The legislation faces opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, where several lawmakers, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have said the decision should be left to the states.

Each state provides two statues to Congress of individuals the state wants to honor.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that a museum would be the appropriate home for the unwanted statues.

“When people say these are symbols of heritage not hate, I say to them hate is a heritage depending on what side of history you’re on,” Clyburn said.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who said his great-grandmother was enslaved, said that “there is no room in this Capitol for those who have perpetuated hate.”

During House debate on the bill, several Democrats and Republicans cast the legislation as long overdue.

Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) called the Dred Scott decision “the most dreadful decision the Supreme Court has made in the history of this country.”

In 1857, Taney wrote the majority decision in the case of Scott, a black man born into slavery who used the courts to demand his freedom. Taney’s ruling, which defended slavery and declared that black people could never become U.S. citizens, came to be viewed as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history.

Taney wrote that at the time of the Constitution’s ratification, black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

A statue of Taney stood outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis until August 2017, when the board of the State House Trust voted to have it removed after the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last month ordered the removal from the Capitol of the portraits of four of her predecessors who served in the Confederacy, saying that “we must lead by example.”

Pelosi in recent weeks has also renewed a years-long quest to remove the remaining Confederate statues from the Capitol.

“Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals,” she wrote in a June letter to colleagues who co-chair the Joint Committee on the Library. “Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage. They must be removed.”