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House Clerk Andrew Ketchings has etched himself an entry in Mississippi’s history. His admission that he moved the controversial statue of white supremacist Mississippi politician Theodore Bilbo from public display in the state Capitol has earned the normally inconspicuous house clerk a mention in the history books.
Unless House Speaker Philip Gunn is the best actor this side of Sir Lawrence Olivier, he did not play a role in removal from public view of the Bilbo statue.
“I don’t have any idea,” Gunn, sounding earnest, told reporters two weeks ago when asked about the missing statue. “I heard about it at lunch.”
Almost a week later, Ketchings finally confirmed he was the culprit and acted alone — with the aid of movers who received between $4,000 and $5,000 for moving the bronze statue that is reportedly life-size at 5 feet 2 inches tall on an enormous base.
The statue is currently tucked away in a storage room on the first floor of the Capitol, and restoring it to public display could prove troublesome.
To restore it legislators will have to argue that Bilbo should be the only governor memorialized with a statue in the Mississippi Capitol. No other governor has such an honor.
Bilbo, who served two terms as governor and was elected twice to the U.S. Senate, advocated for moving Black Americans to Africa and for opposing anti-lynching laws.
Representing the state that perhaps led the nation in lynchings, Bilbo said in filibustering an anti-lynching bill in the U.S. Senate, “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”
Who would be the state legislator to step up and argue that person should be memorialized in Mississippi’s Capitol? Perhaps a legislator could argue about the way the removal was done — with one House staff member doing it on his own.
It is important to remember the clerk is elected by the 122 House members — normally upon a recommendation of the speaker. The clerk is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the House staff and the portion of the Capitol building controlled by the House. Ketchings has acted independently in the past to redo or to update House committee rooms.
It was a quirk of history that resulted in the Bilbo statue being located in House committee room 113 since Bilbo never served in the Mississippi House.
But in 1948 soon after his death, the Mississippi House and Senate passed a resolution calling for a commission to develop a Bilbo monument to be displayed “in a prominent place on the first floor of the new Capitol building.”
For decades that monument rested in the Capitol rotunda, making it one of the first — if not the first — items visitors saw when entering the building. In the early 1980s, while the building was closed for renovations, then-Gov. William Winter, who was old enough to have heard Bilbo’s vile rhetoric in person, moved the statue to room 113 where it remained until recently. It could be argued that Winter made the statue House property.
The Winter move was brave and bold for the time, just as the Ketchings move is now.
“Because of everything he stood for, I think this should have been done years ago,” said Ketchings, who in the past served as a Republican House member from Adams County and later on the staff of Gov. Haley Barbour. In other words, Ketchings has a long history in Mississippi Republican politics.
In a state ripe with a history of racist politicians, Bilbo, along with his contemporary and sometimes ally James K. Vardaman, would belong on Mississippi’s Mount Rushmore of racist politicians.
Ironically, Vardaman, known to many officials as “the great white chief,” was the first Mississippian elected to the Senate through popular election. Before then, the state Legislature selected Mississippi’s U.S. senators.
When running for another term, Vardaman was defeated by Hubert Stephens, a U.S. House member from Union County in northeast Mississippi.
Then six years later, Stephens was defeated by no other than Bilbo.
Nearing death, Stephens, according to an article by Martha Swain in Mississippi History Now, told his family: “Bilbo and Vardaman would both be in the history books and, if they were, he would just as soon be left out.”
Stephens reportedly ordered all his papers burned to try to keep himself out of the history books between Vardaman and Bilbo.