Here’s why a statue of confederate president Jefferson Davis still stands in Washington DC today

Jefferson Davis, second from left. Image: Getty.

Some of the organisers of recent Far Right actions in Charlottesville, Virginia, have claimed that their public display of flames and fascist salutes was provoked by a plan to take down a local statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, who was born a two hour drive from the city.

And events in Virginia have prompted a flurry of declarations that other extant memorials to Confederate figures should be, or are being, removed from public view. These interventions have been somewhat varied: they range from the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky going out of his way to make clear to NBC News that his city was already in the process of removing statues of prominent Confederates, to protesters in Durham, North Carolina, physically hauling down a Confederate War Memorial in full view of representatives of the Sheriff’s office. 

As happened in relation to the #rhodesmustfall movement here in the UK, there has been some discussion – not all of it terribly coherent – about whether the removal of historical street furniture which offends contemporary morals constitutes a form of historical revision. In this context it is worth noting that the statue in Durham wasn’t installed until 1924, and as such is an example of historical revisionism in and of itself. All history is inherently interpretive, and 1924’s view of the 1860s isn’t more ‘authentic’ simply because it’s in greater temporal proximity.

At any rate: recent events have raised questions about how many public monuments there still are to Confederate figures across the United States, and how much longer they will be there. The answers to these questions are, in turn: “A lot,” and “Given that the tenth US President John Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, some, probably, forever.”

What is surprising, however, is the sheer number of Confederates who are celebrated with statues in Washington DC – indeed, within the Capitol of the United States itself.

Just south of the Rotunda in DC is the National Statuary Hall, a huge circular chamber in which the US House of Representatives met for the first half of the 19th century. The House now meets elsewhere, of course, and in that Hall itself, and its various corridors and side rooms, are statues of 100 notable Americans, two from each state.

These ‘stone senators’ are sent as gifts from the states to the federal government, intended to be displayed in the ostensibly non-partisan Capitol. As such, it’s the states themselves, rather than the federal government, that gets to decide who represents them in that National Statuary Hall.

As the hall filled up in the decades following its creation in 1864, in practice this has meant that quite a lot of formerly Confederate states decided to send statues of Confederate figures.

And almost all of them are still there.

One of Mississippi's two statues is of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s sole President. (Davis, astoundingly, also has a pseudo presidential library in Biloxi, Mississippi, supported by Mississippi itself – although not by thef federal agency that administers the libraries of, you know, actual Presidents.) The other is of James Zachariah George, a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. One of Virginia’s two statues is of the aforementioned Robert E Lee.

In choosing these men to represent them in the national capital, Mississippi and Virginia are arguing that its greatest contributions to the United States are men mainly known to history for trying to divide them. That’s Virginia, the birthplace or home of eight US presidents, more than any other state – seven of whom the state apparently sees as less notable than the man who led an army in rebellion against it.

One of Alabama’s statues is of Confederate cavalry officer Joseph Wheeler. He is, in a particularly provocative touch, depicted in full Confederate uniform. South Carolina offers as one of its two favoured sons one Wade Hampton, a plantation owner and yet another confederate general who fought at Gettysburg, and financially underwrote some of the secessionist war effort. Alexander Stephens, Jefferson Davis’ Vice President, is one of Georgia’s picks. North Carolina offers a statue of Confederate Governor Zebulon Vance, whom I mention chiefly because he has a brilliant name.

Very few of these men could be considered outstanding individuals. Each one of those states has figures in its history who contributed vastly more to America than any of them. These men are not here to represent themselves or their talents: they represent the cause of secession in an attempt to maintain slavery, and regret at their failure in the war in which both these things were lost.

These statues, like the Confederate War Memorial in Durham, North Carolina, are largely examples of 1920s and ‘30s nostalgia for the ‘old south’. The statues of Zachariah George and Jefferson Davis, for example, were donated in 1931, rather than in the aftermath of the Civil War or during Reconstruction. They are the product of an era that culminated in the filming of Gone With The Wind, not the one that concluded with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Their installation was as much of an example of historical revisionism as their removal would be.

The ability, even the need, to replace the statues in Washington was built into the legislation that created the Statuary Hall. Perhaps its creators understood that the past only exists through the perceptions of the present, and renewal and revision were foreseen as part of the project from the very start.

Many states have chosen to honour that expectation by altering their choices as time has gone on. Kansas removed the statue of 19th century governor George Washington Glick in 2003 in order to honour Dwight D Eisenhower, the first and so far only President from the state. Michigan did the same in 2011 in order to honour Gerald Ford, its only president. (Unfortunately, it lost a statue of radical abolitionist Zachariah Chandler in the process.) California decided Ronald Reagan was more worthy than 19th century politician Thomas Starr King in 2009.

It’s not just about presidents, either. Ohio replaced a statue of a 19th century governor with one of inventor Thomas Edison as recently as 2016. In 2009, perhaps sensing the way the wind way is blowing, Alabama removed the confederate Jabez Curry and replaced him with Helen Keller.

The replacement of a male representative of a discredited cause with an extraordinary woman is a precedent other states would do well to take notice of. Of the 100 statues on display in and around the hall, around a dozen, depending on exactly how you count, are of Confederates and/or secessionists, all of them men. The total number of women deemed to have earned a place in the National Statuary Hall Collection?


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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.