The kind of person who deserves a statue right now: John Lewis

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 11:34am

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Last Friday, the nation mourned the loss of one of the greatest American civil rights leaders of all time. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., passed away after a battle with stage four pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. Before his election to Congress in 1986, Lewis had previously distinguished himself as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a member of the “Big Six,” an elite group of civil rights icons that included Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, Lewis spoke at the March on Washington, where King gave his globally famous “I Have a Dream” speech. From organizing protests nationwide and marching with Dr. King in the 1960s, to leading a sit-in on the U.S. House floor advocating for gun control legislation in 2016, Lewis is a giant whose shadow spans many eras in U.S. history and whose legacy will no doubt shine far into the future. 

Lewis passed away as the U.S. is grappling with one of the greatest civil rights struggles in recent memory: the widespread protests following the George Floyd killing. It is widely known that one of the consequences of this fallout has been the renewed debate regarding the removal of statues of Confederate or otherwise racist historical figures across the country. However, with the debate around statue removal still raging, it is equally important to consider which statues we should keep and which statues we should build. 

All throughout his life, Lewis fought for racial equality in a way consistent with the values of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, and now that he has left us, it is time to immortalize him in marble or metal like we have done for so many less-deserving Americans. Specifically, a good place to start would be having a statue of Lewis replace the statue of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens as one of Georgia’s statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Championed by the late 19th century Vermont senator Justin Morrill, who is better known for the Morrill Land Grant Act which helped establish public universities like Michigan State, the legislation calling for a Statuary Hall commemorating American heroes was passed into law in 1864. The criteria for memorializing statues according to Morrill’s proposal is as follows: “deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.” Currently, Georgia's two statues are Crawford Long, a 19th-century physician who invented the use of anesthetic substances during surgery, and the far more controversial Stephens who, in addition to being a leader in the Confederacy, was the owner of 30+ slaves before the Civil War. 

Since John Lewis has, to the great sadness of so many Americans, passed away, it is time to remove the statue of Stephens and erect one that commemorates Lewis in the Capitol. This is more than a fitting proposition, as Lewis was known during his life as “the Conscience of the Congress” for his calm but principled leadership. In addition to the aforementioned gun control sit-in, some of Lewis’s greatest accomplishments in Congress include helping to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 through the House of Representatives, which holds individual states accountable for restrictive voter registration and voting practices, and co-sponsoring the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which devotes FBI and DOJ resources to solving civil rights-related cold cases for hate crimes like lynchings. 

Meanwhile, one of Stephens’s greatest “accomplishments” is his fiery Cornerstone Speech, which he delivered in Georgia in the weeks before the attack of Fort Sumter. This speech is credited as one of the clearest explanations of the Confederate system of government, and a key factor behind the galvanization of pro-Confederate sentiment heading into the Civil War. In this speech, Stephens declared that slavery — i.e. the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” — was the “cornerstone” (hence the oration’s nickname) of the Confederate States of America and that the “natural and moral condition” of Black enslavement was what made the Confederacy truly great. These are the horrifying words of the kind of man who would have been Lewis’s worst enemy. The fact that Georgia believes that someone who would say this is “worthy of national commemoration” is simply nauseating and in desperate need of rectification.

As previously stated, even as a young man, Lewis was constantly fighting for improving the treatment of his own community. In Morrill’s own words, one of the most important factors behind whether a statue should be enshrined in Statuary Hall is their commitment to improving our democracy in the form of “distinguished civic … services.” What bigger civic duty is there than getting Americans to vote? Lewis spent much of his time with SNCC attempting to have Black Americans registered to vote in spite of racist poll taxes and literacy tests, and his skull was even fractured by Alabama police while he was protesting for the original 1965 Voting Rights Act in Selma, Ala., near the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In Lewis’s own words, “the right to vote is precious … the vote is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society.”

On the other hand, and this should not be surprising at this point, Stephens continued to be a callous racist after the Civil War ended. He was elected to Congress representing Georgia from 1873 to 1882 and then became the governor of Georgia from 1882 until his death in 1883. He was influential in Georgia politics during a post-Reconstruction period that saw a resurgence of white supremacy and a litany of Black voting restrictions, such as the 1877 poll tax requirement which, although abolished in 1945, was similar to the one Lewis fought against decades later.

This article does not even begin to cover how incredible and effective John Lewis was as an activist and legislator. In addition to his voting rights and congressional work, he led legendary sit-ins against segregation across the country, and was one of the original Freedom Riders protesting the segregation of bus stations in the South. After Lewis’s death, current Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp related a statement praising him as a “Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian who changed our world in a profound way.” 

However, while many members of Congress are trying to get rid of Confederate statues in the Capitol, currently only a state’s government can officially remove and replace that state’s statue. With that in mind, everything Kemp said about Lewis would be utterly hypocritical if he continued to allow Stephens — the anti-Lewis if there ever was one — to represent Georgia in the Capitol. If Georgians really believe that Lewis was a beloved member of their state, they need to act as soon as possible and purge the stain of the Confederacy from their public memorials, starting with Stephens, and end this purge with new memorials to the right people, like Congressman John Lewis.

Tuhin Chakraborty can be reached at tchakra@umich.edu.