Confederate symbols are making way for better things
Teenage civil rights activist Barbara Johns is poised to take Gen. Robert E. Lee’s place in the U.S. Capitol.
The Lee statue, which represented the state of Virginia as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection in the Capitol for 111 years, had been removed just weeks before — one of at least 160 Confederate symbols taken down or moved from public spaces in 2020, according to a new count by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The center, which keeps a raw count of nearly 2,100 statues, symbols, placards, buildings and public parks dedicated to the Confederacy, plans to release the latest figures Tuesday. It has been tracking the movement to take down the monuments since 2015, when a white supremacist entered a South Carolina church and killed several Black members.
“These racist symbols only serve to uphold revisionist history and the belief that white supremacy remains morally acceptable,” Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement. “This is why we believe that all symbols of white supremacy should be removed from public spaces.”
Sometime after visitors and tourists are welcomed back to the U.S. Capitol, in place of Lee’s statue there will be one saluting Virginia’s Barbara Johns, a Black girl who in 1951, at age 16, staged a strike over unequal conditions at her segregated high school in Farmville. Her actions led to court-ordered integration of public schools across the United States, via the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Each state legislature can choose up to two representatives to honor in the Capitol’s collection. In December, a Virginia commission recommended replacing Lee’s statue with one of Johns. Supporters told the Associated Press that Virginia’s Legislature had nearly finalized approval of the elevation of Johns’ statue alongside one of George Washington.
Joan Johns Cobbs, Johns’ younger sister, is ecstatic about the coming honor. She’s also happy it didn’t happen before Jan. 6, when the Capitol was attacked.
“You can’t imagine how sad I was seeing what was happening in the Capitol building,” Cobbs said. “I was saying to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m kind of glad her statue wasn’t there already.’ I wondered what would have happened.”
Long seen as offensive to Black Americans, Lee’s Capitol statue wasn’t the only one representing a figure from the “lost cause,” a term referring to the belief that fighting on the side of slaveholders in the Civil War was just and heroic. Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederate States of America before becoming a U.S. senator from Mississippi, is one of two figures representing that state in the Capitol.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 704 Confederate monuments still standing across the country. And taking some of them down may be difficult, particularly in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — where lawmakers have enacted policies that protect these monuments.
The movement to remove these symbols from public spaces became part of the national reckoning on racial injustice following the killing last May of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.
Although activists have long called for taking down Confederate symbols, the effort began to grow broader after a white supremacist gunned down nine Black people during a June 2015 Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“Exposing children to anything that falsely promotes the idea of white superiority and Black inferiority is dehumanizing,” the law center’s Brooks said in her statement.
That’s why the honor for Johns couldn’t come at a better time, said Cameron Patterson, executive director of the Robert Russa Moton Museum, a caretaker of Johns’ legacy.
Johns moved from New York to live with her grandmother in Virginia’s Prince Edward County during World War II and attended Moton High School in Farmville. According to her memoir, the Black school had poor facilities, lacked science laboratories and had no gymnasium.
On April 23, 1951, at 16, Johns led her classmates in a strike against the substandard conditions at Moton High, drawing the attention of civil rights lawyers at the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Attorneys filed a federal case that became one of five that the Supreme Court reviewed in the Brown decision. In 1954, the high court declared segregation unconstitutional.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Johns’ protest. She died in 1991, at 56.
“There’s real recognition that her inclusion in the Statuary Hall collection really will be a great opportunity for folks to more fully come to understand the Moton story in full,” Patterson said. “So not only are they learning about Barbara and who she was, they’re learning about her classmates. They’re learning about those that continue to labor in this community, as it relates to the fight for educational equality.”
Cobbs, Johns’ sister, agreed.
“I hope that young people will see it as something that they could emulate,” she said. “Being that young, seeing an injustice and deciding to do something about it is pretty remarkable.”