In Washington, even the statues may have to shift left or right.
That could be the fate of a dozen monuments to Confederate figures in the Capitol, should members of Congress opt to exploit an obscure loophole that would allow them to relocate the statues to less prominent locations in the building.
Nearly two decades ago, a law codified the Joint Library Committee’s authority to “relocate within the United States Capitol any of the statues received from the States,” a right originally created by a 1933 concurrent resolution. Nothing in the law guarantees a statue will be displayed in a prominent, or even public, location, however, opening up the possibility of the committee exiling the Confederate statues without removing them entirely.
It’s something of a last-ditch effort, but one that would likely appeal to a number of prominent Democrats who have called in recent days for removing Confederate statues from the Capitol entirely, following the onslaught of racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the purging of such monuments from other cities. On Tuesday night, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh quietly ordered the removal of statues from public places. And in Durham, North Carolina, protesters physically tore down a circa-1924 statue of a Confederate soldier on Monday night.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, unequivocally called for the statues’ removal from the Capitol, saying in a statement: “We will never solve America’s race problem if we continue to honor traitors who fought against the United States in order to keep African Americans in chains. By the way, thank god, they lost.” Late Wednesday night, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, also a member of the CBC, went one step further, tweeting, “I will be introducing a bill to remove Confederate statues from the US Capitol building. This is just one step. We have much work to do.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined the mounting calls on Thursday. “The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible. If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately,” she wrote in a statement. “As Speaker, we relocated Robert E. Lee out of a place of honor in National Statuary Hall—a place now occupied by the statue of Rosa Parks.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida this week urged her state’s legislature to vote on a replacement for the statue of Florida-born Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, placed in Statuary Hall in 1922. Florida voted to remove the statue last year.
And, as has been pointed out by House Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republicans, states also have the ultimate authority to decide whether to take down the Confederate statues they’ve sent to Washington.
“Each state makes the decision as to which two statues they send to the U.S. Capitol,” Republican Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi told National Journal in a statement on Wednesday. “That decision should rest with the individual state.”
Harper chairs the Joint Library Committee, which oversees statues in the Capitol. The committee comprises six Republicans and four Democrats, split evenly between the chambers, meaning that Harper and at least one other Republican would likely have to support moving the statues for such a measure to pass.
But politically, an effort to relocate the statues, rather than remove them altogether, could provide an opportunity for compromise at a time of escalating tension between President Trump and those who have publicly condemned his fumbled responses to Saturday’s racial violence. In an early morning tweetstorm on Thursday, Trump reenergized the debate: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it,” he wrote. “Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson—who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
The 12 statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians in the Capitol hail from 10 different states, according to a Washington Post analysis, which could further complicate transfer efforts. Both statues from Mississippi and South Carolina, for example, are of Confederate figures.
But should committee members choose to bypass the legislative process, history suggests there is a way in. Per the House historian, statues have been moved on numerous occasions. A 1933 resolution decreed each state could have only one statue in Statuary Hall, so others were moved around the Capitol. Statues were relocated again in 1976 to “improve the aesthetic quality and orderliness of the physical arrangement” of the collection, and again in 2008 to place them in the new Capitol Visitor Center.