A measure seeking to remove the bust of former Chief Justice Roger B. Taney — who wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that said Black people were not U.S. citizens — along with racist and Confederate statues in the Capitol passed the House 305-113 Wednesday.
It is a legislative response to nationwide calls for statues that honor the country’s discriminatory past to be relocated from prominent locations.
The bill, introduced by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, would direct the Architect of the Capitol to replace Taney’s bust with another Marylander: Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice. It would also remove all statues of people who voluntarily served in the Confederacy. The Joint Committee on the Library of Congress, which has oversight of statues and art in the Capitol, would move to place Marshall’s bust in the Old Supreme Court Chamber within two years.
North Carolina Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former state judge whose great-grandmother was a slave, said the 1857 decision authored by Taney “was arguably the worst opinion that the Supreme Court of the United States has ever, ever handed down.”
Charles Aycock of North Carolina, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and James Paul Clarke of Arkansas, although not members of the Confederacy, were white supremacists, and their statues are specifically named in the bill for removal from the National Statuary Hall Collection. The bust of John C. Breckinridge, a Kentucky senator and vice president in the Buchanan administration who was expelled in 1861 for joining the Confederacy, would also be removed.
“It’s time to sweep away the last vestiges of Jim Crow and the dehumanizing of individuals because of the color of their skin that intruded for too long on the sacred spaces of our democracy,” Hoyer said.
Other statues that would also be subject to removal from the collection because of their subjects’ ties to the Confederate States of America include Jefferson Davis (Mississippi), James Z. George (Mississippi), Wade Hampton III (South Carolina), John E. Kenna (West Virginia), Robert E. Lee (Virginia), U. M. Rose (Arkansas), Edmund Kirby Smith (Florida), Alexander H. Stephens (Georgia), Zebulon Baird Vance (North Carolina), Joseph Wheeler (Alabama) and Edward Douglass White (Louisiana).
States represented by statues tagged for removal would be required to pay for their return. If the state doesn’t want to pay to bring the statue back, the Architect of the Capitol would move the statue to the Smithsonian Institution. Toward that end, $2 million would go to the AOC to execute the removal process and $3 million would go to the Smithsonian.
A Congressional Budget Office report estimates the replacement of racist busts and statues would cost $5 million.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn stressed that the legislation had nothing to do with “destroying statues.” The South Carolina Democrat said he doesn’t want anyone tearing down statues, but rather wants to “put them in a museum.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass joked that the statues should perhaps be placed in the nonexistent House jail.
“I have heard that somewhere in the Capitol there is a jail that people were in put in at one point in time and maybe that would be a proper location for these statues,” the California Democrat said.
Clyburn, Bass, Butterfield and Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi are co-sponsors of Hoyer’s bill.
No Democrats voted against the measure Wednesday, but 113 Republican lawmakers did vote against it.
One of them, California GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, acknowledged during floor debate that the Dred Scott decision was a bad one, but added, “If we remove memorials to every person in this building who ever made a bad decision — and his was the worst — well, this would be a very barren place indeed.”
Congress authorized the National Statuary Hall Collection in 1864 to allow each state to donate two statues of notable citizens, “illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services,” for display in the Capitol.
Currently, states can ask the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to approve a replacement. Before this can happen, the state’s Legislature must adopt a resolution and the governor must sign off. The statue in question must have been displayed in the Capitol for at least 10 years. The committee can waive the requirement for cause if the state wants.
Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody, protests across the nation have demanded racial equality when it comes to policing and have advocated the removal of symbols of the country’s racist past from places of public admiration.
In response, Speaker Nancy Pelosi in June called for removing statues of Confederates from the National Statuary Hall Collection. Last month, Pelosi also directed the removal of four portraits in the Capitol of former speakers who served in the Confederacy: Robert Hunter of Virginia, Howell Cobb of Georgia, James Orr of South Carolina and Charles Crisp of Georgia.
The House’s $4.2 billion Legislative Branch appropriations bill overlaps with Hoyer’s measure — it would remove 14 statues and two busts, including Taney’s.
Hoyer invoked his late House colleague, Georgia Democrat John Lewis, a civil rights icon, who died Friday.
“If John were here, he would be speaking with us, and to you, about this effort,” Hoyer told a reporter.
The bill now heads to the Senate.