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New dispute over Confederate memorials hits Miss. Statehouse

Saturday, February 7, 2009

(Photo)
Rogelio V. Solis ~ Associated Press
A statue of the late Gov. Theodore Gilmore Bilbo stands out Jan. 22 from the back of a first floor conference room at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss.
JACKSON, Miss. -- Confederate President Jefferson Davis, branded a traitor in his own country, is memorialized at statehouses across the South. But not in Mississippi, where he lived out his remaining days.

A bill to accept a statue of Davis from the Sons of Confederate Veterans is now the latest skirmish in the long battle over Confederate history, often fought on Southern Capitol lawns and rotundas.

This round takes on a new twist with the election of President Obama, the nation's first black commander in chief.

"If there ever was a time it would be untimely and inappropriate, it would be now," said Mississippi Rep. Robert Johnson, a black Democrat from the historic river city of Natchez.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans has been shopping for a home for the Davis statue for over a year. It was first offered to a Civil War history center in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy. But the Confederate group later rescinded because the center wasn't sure where the statue would be placed.

The statue depicts Davis holding the hands of two children -- his son and a black slave who was adopted by the Davis family.

Mississippi is one of only a few Southern states that doesn't have a statue of Davis somewhere on Statehouse grounds, said Larry McCluney of Greenwood, a division commander for the Confederate group.

An Army soldier who fought in the Mexican War, Davis went on to serve as a U.S. senator from Mississippi and played a role in what would become the Smithsonian Institution before he was named president of the seceding states that would become the Confederacy.

"He's overlooked and misunderstood because of the four years of the Confederacy," McCluney said.

A fellow Democratic lawmaker from Natchez, Sen. Bob Dearing, who is white, introduced the legislation and said he didn't consider it controversial.

The chances of the statue finding a home at the Mississippi Capitol are slim. The Senate passed a version of the statue bill that would restore a Confederate monument that already exists at the Old State Capitol, now a museum.

The original proposal could have resulted in Davis' statue standing near the spot once occupied by a bronze figure of Theodore Bilbo, an unabashedly racist governor whose political career was mired in scandal.

Decades ago, Bilbo was a centerpiece in the Capitol's rotunda. Now it stands in a first-floor committee room where the Legislative Black Caucus often meets. The former U.S. senator's outstretched arm is occasionally used as a coat and hat rack.

"There's a poetic irony in keeping him in that committee room," Johnson said. "The person who would be most upset about Mississippi having the largest delegation of African-American legislators in the country has to sit and watch as we talk about policy."

Other Southern states will again see legislation this year proposing to remove symbols of their segregated pasts.

In South Carolina, a statue on the Statehouse grounds of Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman -- an 1890s governor who was proud of the terror he inflicted lynching blacks -- has been targeted by lawmakers. State Rep. Todd Rutherford believes the nation can't move forward with constant reminders of the past and plans to introduce a bill to remove Tillman's statue. A similar bill died last year.

"Do I think it stands a chance this year? I doubt it, but it's not going to stop me. I don't feel that most people in the General Assembly feel this new era of change is going to come about," said Rutherford, a black Democrat from Columbia.

At the Georgia Statehouse, there's a statue of Eugene Talmadge, a three-term Georgia governor whose 1930s and 1940s politics was a mix of racism and pocketbook populism.

Martin Luther King's portrait hangs inside the Capitol, but black Georgia lawmakers are urging the Legislature to hang pictures of other civil rights activists like Rosa Parks.

"I'm not opposed to showcasing our history, but let's be holistic. Let's be inclusive," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a black Democrat who introduced the legislation for additional portraits.

Brooks said visitors to Georgia's Capitol find an "overabundance" of Confederate history and post-Reconstruction and Dixiecrat eras.

"I think America in general is trying to find a way to heal the wounds of the racial divide, but in some of the Deep South states, these states want to go in the opposite direction," Brooks said.


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