Confederate statues are being pulled down across the South — from Birmingham, Ala., to Decatur, Ga., to Richmond, Va., the Confederacy’s former capital. The U.S. Navy and the Marines have banned public displays of the Confederate battle flag — as has NASCAR.
Now, Congress is taking its own halting steps forward. On Thursday, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, announced that portraits of four former House speakers who also served the Confederacy would be removed from display in the Capitol in observance of the Juneteenth holiday. (June 19 marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news of the end of slavery — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It has come to be a more general celebration of liberation.)
The portraits are Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, who was speaker from 1839 to 1841 before serving in various high positions in the Confederacy, including secretary of state; Howell Cobb of Georgia, who was speaker from 1849 to 1851 and later served as a Confederate Army officer; James L. Orr of South Carolina, speaker from 1857 to 1859, who went on to serve in the Confederate Army and in the Confederate Senate; and Charles F. Crisp of Georgia, the House speaker from 1891 to 1895, who served in the Confederate Army as a young man.
“As I have said before, the halls of Congress are the very heart of our democracy,” Ms. Pelosi wrote to the clerk of the House, requesting the removal. “There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy.”
Over in the Senate, Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, tried to nudge his chamber forward as well. He and the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, moved Thursday to pass a bill by unanimous consent that would remove 11 monuments to Confederates from the National Statuary Hall Collection displayed in the Capitol. (Each state is represented by two figures.) Mr. Booker denounced the statues as part of an effort to intimidate black Americans. “We cannot separate the Confederate statues from this history and legacy of white supremacy,” he said, calling them a “painful, insulting, difficult injury” to many Americans.
Not all of Mr. Booker’s colleagues agreed. Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, blocked the move. He said that as chairman of the Rules Committee, he needed time to examine the proposal and to confer with the states involved. Current law gives each state the right to choose its own displays, and Mr. Blunt voiced concern about running afoul of that.
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was more outspoken in his opposition. On Tuesday, he derided brewing efforts to “airbrush the Capitol and scrub out everybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery” as “nonsense” and “a bridge too far.” He even felt moved to list for reporters some of the early presidents who owned slaves. “Washington did. Jefferson did. Madison did. Monroe did.”
None of those presidents, it should be noted, went to war against the United States to defend slavery. Nor are all the 11 statues of peripheral figures who had just “any connection” to the war for chattel slavery. The statues include one of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America; Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president; and its most famous general, Robert E. Lee. There are other statues of men less central to the rebel cause. But given that states can select any person of note from their state, surely there are many other men or women who don’t have the Confederacy on their résumés.