For the first time in more than 68 years, the statue of Theodore Bilbo will not be in the Mississippi Capitol when the Legislature convenes its 2023 session on Jan. 3.
The bronze statue of the diminutive demagogue who ran for and won two elections for governor and three for U.S. senator by spewing racial rhetoric and opposing anti-lynching laws has been banished from the Mississippi Capitol.
Some believe the monuments of two other racist figures from Mississippi’s past should be the next to be removed — but not from the state Capitol, but from the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, the Mississippi Senate minority leader, has requested legislation to be drafted that he will author in the upcoming 2023 session to remove the statues of Jefferson Davis and James Zachariah George from the U.S. Capitol. Davis, of course, was president of the Confederacy. The lesser known George was one of the architects of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution that was a blueprint for other Southern states to follow on how to discriminate against African Americans and prevent them from voting.
While George and Davis represent Mississippi in the U.S. Capitol, interestingly neither are native Mississippians. They were selected by the Mississippi Legislature in 1924 to represent the state in the nation’s Capitol.
Each state is allowed to select two monuments to be displayed in the U.S. Capitol. Mississippi is the only state where both of its statues, supposedly representing its people and its beliefs, are so directly linked to a racist past and the Confederacy.
The mothballing of the supposedly life-size bronze statue of Bilbo continues a trend that Simmons hopes to continue with the removal of Davis and George. The trend began in 2020 when the Mississippi Legislature surprised onlookers by voting to retire and replace the state flag that incorporated prominently in its design the Confederate battle emblem.
Legislators did not vote to remove Bilbo, but in a sense acquiesced in the mothballing. In late 2021, House Clerk Andrew Ketchings, who was elected by House members to oversee the day-to-day operations of the chamber, took it upon himself to quietly remove the statue from a key House Committee room where it has been exhibited since the early 1980s.
“Because of everything he stood for, I think this should have been done years ago,” Ketchings said in February 2022. “It was way past time to do it.”
The Mississippi Legislature passed a resolution in 1948 soon after Bilbo’s death to place a statue of him “in a prominent place on the first floor of the new Capitol building.”
The statue was unveiled in April 1954, according to newspaper accounts. In the early 1980s then-Gov. William Winter had the sculpture removed from the 1st floor rotunda to what was then a little-used room in the Capitol. But in more recent years the room — 113 — has been used for House committee meetings, including by the Legislative Black Caucus. Members would use the outstretched arm of Bilbo as a coat rack.
Ketchings hid the statue, estimated to weigh about 2,000 pounds, in a Capitol storage room. It was recently moved to storage underneath the Two Mississippi Museums. Archives and History Executive Director Katie Blount said recently there is no plan to exhibit the Bilbo statue.
Simmons said he is filing legislation to remove the monuments from the U.S. Capitol because “we should continue the progress we made in 2020 when we replaced the state flag by removing symbols that divide us.”
Federal guidelines give the authority to each state Legislature to determine the statues to be exhibited in the U.S. Capitol.
In 2021, an effort was made to pass federal legislation to remove the two Mississippi monuments from the U.S. Capitol. All members of Mississippi’s congressional delegation opposed the federal legislation except 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s lone Democrat and only African American member of Congress.
Thompson said he voted for the legislation because “statues of those who served in the Confederacy or supported slavery or segregation should not have a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol.”
Mississippi’s Republican members of Congress said they believe it should be up to states to decide the monuments representing them in the U.S. Capitol.
Simmons said he intends to give Mississippians, through their elected representatives, an opportunity to vote on the removal of the two statues.
Simmons said his legislation would reassemble the board that was put in place in 2020 to lead the effort to select a new flag for the state and give it the responsibility for selecting who would represent Mississippi in the U.S. Capitol.
If Simmons is successful, perhaps Bilbo would have company from Jefferson Davis and J.Z. George in the bowels of the Two Mississippi Museums.