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Ghosts of Confederate Mississippi endure in the Capitol

Jefferson Davis, James Z. George were Confederates, white supremacists

A statue of James Z. George, a Confederate colonel and U.S. senator, is on display in the Capitol Visitor Center. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
A statue of James Z. George, a Confederate colonel and U.S. senator, is on display in the Capitol Visitor Center. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

While answering phones in the Mississippi congressional office where he worked, Ty James was called the n-word by someone on the other end of the line. It was 2017 and marked the second time he had been called that.

Those kinds of experiences have helped convince James, a native Mississippian and African American who is press secretary for Rep. Bennie Thompson, that the two statues representing the state in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection shouldn’t be devoted to men who were Confederates and white supremacists.

“For me, he symbolizes racism and hate,” James said, referring to Jefferson Davis. The other statue, of James Z. George, represents the same for him.

But James and his boss, who wants the statues replaced, are outnumbered in their congressional delegation, and the decision is ultimately one for the state.

That doesn’t mean the statues don’t carry cultural baggage.

Mississippi is the only state represented by two Confederates in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

South Carolina is represented by Wade Hampton, a Confederate, and John C. Calhoun. While Calhoun died before the inception of the Confederate States of America, he established its world view, said Carole Emberton, an associate history professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Neither Davis nor George was born in Mississippi; they were born in Kentucky and Georgia, respectively.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 17: A statue of Jefferson Davis who was president of the Confederacy, is on display in the Capitol's Statuary Hall on August 17, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A statue of Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederacy, stands in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Davis was president of the Confederacy. He also served in the U.S. House and Senate and as War secretary. George’s contribution to the Confederacy is less known.

“They were both white supremacists, they both owned slaves, and there’s no doubt that they were racists,” said Timothy B. Smith, a history lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Martin, who wrote a book about George.

A Confederate colonel who went on to become a U.S. senator, George also chaired Mississippi’s Democratic Executive Committee from 1875 to 1876, crafting the “Mississippi Plan,” a campaign of voter intimidation and violent repression.

“He was the architect of taking back Democratic control in Mississippi, what’s often termed as ‘redemption,’” Smith said, noting that redemption was a term synonymous with white supremacy.

George led the construction of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, which effectively reduced the number of qualified black Mississippi voters from 147,205 to 8,615, an action that resulted in a white electoral majority in every county, according to a 2017 report by the University of Mississippi’s Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Contextualization.

That constitution was so successful in decimating the voting rights of African Americans that George’s plan was repeated in Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and the Carolinas, according to the University of Mississippi report.

“In a very real sense, James Z. George is not only responsible for disfranchising black people in Mississippi for nearly a century, he’s also responsible for disfranchising black people across the South,” said Anne Twitty, an associate history professor at the University of Mississippi who was a part of the team that produced the report.

The statues of both Davis and George were given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Mississippi in 1931, according to the Architect of the Capitol.

Congress authorized the collection in 1864 to allow each state to donate two statues of notable citizens “illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services” for display in the Capitol.

[Johnny Cash is replacing one of the Capitol’s Civil War statues]

In 2000, the law was changed to allow states to ask the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to approve a replacement — if the request has first been backed by a resolution adopted by the state’s legislature and governor. The statue up for replacement must have been displayed in the Capitol for at least 10 years; the committee can waive the requirement for cause at a state’s request.

There is a path for federal action. In 2017, for example, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California introduced legislation to prohibit statues in Statuary Hall of those who voluntarily served in the Confederacy.

Where they stand

Chris Gallegos, communications director for Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, said it’s up to the state to decide whether to remove the statues, a sentiment shared by most of the delegation, including his boss.

“There’s going to be people who like what’s there and people who don’t,” he said. In his home state of New Mexico, the state filled a slot in 2005 with Po’pay, whom Gallegos said was controversial because he led the Pueblo Revolt against Spanish rule.

“I don’t know how many people actually base their entire judgment on a state just based on a statue sitting in a room in the Capitol,” Gallegos said. “I mean, if they’ve actually visited Mississippi or actually visited the people … they’ll know that Mississippi’s a lot bigger than any one or two statues.”

As for James, he would like the statues to be replaced by famous Mississippians such as B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Medgar Evers, Tennessee Williams or Eudora Welty.

“[There are] a lot of other people that we can use — white and black — that can represent Mississippi far better than these two,” James said.

Out of the six-member Mississippi congressional delegation, only Thompson, the lone Democrat among them, has called for the removal of George and Davis.

“I don’t think slave owners should be honored in our Capitol. I would propose that we replace Jefferson Davis and James Z. George with Medgar W. Evers and Evelyn Gandy,” Thompson said in an emailed statement.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 4: Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., leaves the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the Capitol on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., wants to see the Davis and George statues replaced. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rob Pillow, communications director for Rep. Michael Guest, said in an emailed statement, “Because this responsibility is left entirely to the state, the congressman respects the right of the state legislature and governor to replace the statues and would support the state’s decision if it chooses to pass a resolution to replace a statue.”

Rick VanMeter, communications director for Sen. Roger Wicker, said in an emailed statement, “Sen. Wicker is not calling for the removal of either statue.”

Colleen Kennedy, press secretary for Rep. Steven Palazzo, said, “The congressman is not actively advocating for the removal of those statues nor has he ever. This is a decision that is made at the state level and as far as we are aware, this conversation is not being had back in Mississippi.”

Rep. Trent Kelly did not comment.

The first time James experienced being called the n-word, he was playing in the Mississippi State University band at a rivalry football game, the Egg Bowl, in Oxford against the University of Mississippi.

As James was washing his hands in the restroom, an Ole Miss fan used the epithet and said he would burn James’ band uniform off him. Those are the sorts of moments that have stayed with James.

“When it comes to those two men, they don’t represent me, but they may well represent my state,” James said of Davis and George. “I would be naive to say they didn’t.”

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