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Lawmakers Reflect on Capitol's Confederate Symbols

Tourists pass the statue of Jefferson Davis in Statuary Hall. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As attention on the Confederate flag shifts from South Carolina to Mississippi and Alabama, federal lawmakers began looking around the halls of their own workplace and questioning whether flags and other symbols of the Confederacy have a place in the U.S. Capitol.  

"This Capitol represents the United States of America and to give people a prominent place in this Capitol, and they did everything they did to split away from this government, is not the right thing to do,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Wednesday. Thompson introduced a privileged resolution  Wednesday to remove flags with Confederate iconography from the Capitol, except in front of the offices of members who choose to display them. The Mississippi state flag, for instance, sits in a glass case above the state's seal in the hallway connecting the Capitol to the Rayburn House Office Building.  

But the Rayburn tunnel is not the only spot in the Capitol featuring the Magnolia State's flag. It flies a few blocks from the Capitol at Columbus Circle, hangs along the tunnel connecting the Dirksen and Hart office buildings to the Capitol and is displayed outside the offices of members of the Mississippi delegation.  

Thompson is not the only lawmaker who thinks flags with Confederate imagery don't belong in the Capitol.  

"They’re a symbol of division, separation, of a dark past," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said of Confederate battle flags. "They shouldn’t be displayed on state or federal buildings, especially our own."  

Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, said this is the time to review all flags with Confederate roots, including his own state's. Georgia's flag was approved by voters in 2003 to replace a previous flag that bore the Confederate battle flag. But its current banner incorporates the design of the "Stars and Bars."  

"We need to go back and look at it also," Lewis said. "We should look at all of them and the 11 states of the Confederacy, from Virginia to Texas."  

One of his home-state colleagues doesn't think Congress should be involved in such matters in the states or in the U.S. Capitol.  

"I think this is something for states, obviously," Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said of Confederate symbols in the Capitol. "I said yesterday that if people are offended by flags or statues then that’s a debate that we ought to have."  

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he didn't think Congress should get involved in the decisions about statues in the Statuary Hall collection, including Jefferson Davis from his native Mississippi.  

"I would suggest that they not start messing around with state-designated statues," Lott said.  

While Lott said it was ultimately a state issue, he said Davis was qualified for the Statuary Hall honor based on service prior to the Civil War as a House member and senator from Mississippi, and as secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.  

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a statue of Davis in the Kentucky statehouse should be removed. Davis was born in Kentucky.  

For Lewis, seeing symbols of the Confederacy embodied in flags or statues of Confederate soldiers is unfortunate, particularly for lawmakers who traverse the halls every day and for young people who visit the Capitol.  

“We work here," Lewis said. "There’s hundreds of thousands of children, of young people, from all over the world, all over America that come here. And they should be sensitized and educated. I speak to a lot of children, a lot of young people. Talking to them about the American civil rights movement, how we’re trying to bring people together and not divide people. And this should be a place of learning.”  

Thompson is the only member of his House delegation not to display his state's flag outside his office. Instead, along with an American flag, two flags from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University are outside his Rayburn office. Both institutions are historically black colleges.  

"I don’t go to their offices," Thompson said when asked about seeing the Mississippi flag outside his colleagues' office. "I mean, to each his own. It’s a preference and there’s no requirement to have a state flag in front of your office. It’s a tradition. And it’s a tradition that I chose not to honor, given my opposition to the flag and what it represented.”  

Across the Capitol, Republican Mississippi Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran voiced their support for changing the state flag Wednesday. The flag was still displayed outside Wicker's office Wednesday morning, though Cochran's office did not display any flags outside its door.  

Cochran's spokesman said Thompson's resolution was a matter for the House.  

Wicker did not offer support for Thompson's effort and said changing the Mississippi flag is best handled by the state government.  

"I really would hope that he would not do that," Wicker said. "I think this is a decision that should be made by the state of Mississippi. And that might be counterproductive actually, to think that Washington, D.C., would dictate the terms. The decisions that have been made so far have been made by the state leaders in state capitols."  

Lending some credence to that argument, Alabama's Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, ordered Wednesday that four Confederate-era flags be taken down from the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery: the Battle Flag; the First National Confederate Flag, or the "Stars and Bars;" the Second National Confederate Flag, or "Stainless Banner;" and the Third National Confederate Flag.  

Bentley told AL.com  it was "partially a reaction" to the Charleston, S.C., shootings but ultimately said, "This is the right thing to do," and the flags could be a distraction from more pressing state business.  

When asked if removing Confederate symbols, including Mississippi's flag and statues of Confederate generals, would be akin to erasing history, Thompson bristled.  

“You’re asking a black American about scrubbing and sanitizing history? You know there’s so much history of African-Americans in this country that we’ll never know about, you understand?" Thompson said. "So as somebody that’s been a victim of scrubbing history, what I’m trying to do is get it right."  

"I don’t think we should glorify someone who tried to separate this country," Thompson continued. "We should identify who they are and put them in their rightful place and not prominently displayed in the United States Capitol.”  

Emma Dumain, Niels Lesniewski, Matthew Fleming and Jason Dick contributed to this report .

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