Statue of Limitations

This is going to be a controversial topic, but it is one that I want to address for a very specific reason. In the US Capitol, the National Statuary Hall is a collection of 100 statues contributed by 50 states, two statues each. Last month the House of Representatives voted to banish from the Capitol statues of Confederate figures and leaders, part of a broader effort to remove historical symbols of racism and oppression from public spaces. Senate Republicans are refusing to address the issue because they claim that it is up to the states to choose who is represented in the National Statuary Hall. Some of the statues never belonged at the Capitol in the first place, such as Jefferson Davis (CSA Pres.; Mississippi), Alexander Stephens (CSA VP; Georgia) or Robert E Lee (CSA Gen.; Virginia). However, at least one of the statues that the House wants removed are of people who I think redeemed themselves after their service to the Confederacy. 

Joseph Wheeler (Alabama), who was a West Point graduate, resigned from the U.S. Army to serve as a general in the Confederate Army and was considered one of its top cavalry leaders. However, Wheeler later represented Alabama for eight terms as a Democrat in the House. While in Congress, Wheeler worked to heal the breach between the North and the South after the Civil War and championed economic policies that would help rebuild the Southern states. At the age of 61, he volunteered for the Spanish–American War, receiving an appointment to major general of volunteers from President William McKinley. During the war, he was in command of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, and then served in the Philippine-American War, where he left the volunteer service and was commissioned a brigadier general in the regular army, reentering the organization he had resigned from over 39 years before. I will admit that the statue should be replaced, because it portrays Wheeler in his Confederate uniform, but I think it should be replaced with a new statue of Wheeler. 

Honestly, the rest can go. The only other one that comes close to being redeemable is that of US Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglass White. White enlisted in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union forces in 1865. After the Civil War, he served in the state Senate and U.S. Senate before President Grover Cleveland nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1894. He became chief justice in 1910 and served in that position until his death in 1921. However, White’s record on race during his time on the Supreme Court is mixed at best. He sided with the Supreme Court majority in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the legality of state segregation to provide “separate but equal” public facilities in the United States, despite protections of the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection of the laws. In one of several challenges to Southern states’ grandfather clauses, used to disfranchise African-American voters at the turn of the century, he wrote for a unanimous court in Guinn v. United States, which struck down many Southern states’ grandfather clauses. 

Some statues of Confederates have already been removed. One of those is that of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, who formerly was one of Alabama’s statues. His statue was removed in 2009 and replaced with one of Helen Keller. Curry was removed because he was deemed racist and a former Confederate. Here’s the issue though, Curry did serve in the Confederate Army, but after the war, he was president of Howard College, now Samford University in Birmingham. Also, after the war he studied for the ministry and became a preacher, but the focus of his work for the rest of his life was free education in the South. His pro-slavery speeches from before the Civil War and membership in the Confederate House of Representatives may demonstrate strong ties to the southern cause; however, his efforts to promote education for Blacks during the Reconstruction era up through the end of the 19th century are reflective of ideals that were not shared by many of his contemporaries. The statue was removed anyway, and maybe Helen Keller is a better representation for Alabama.

This brings me to the inspiration for this post. The North Carolina legislature has voted to replace a statue of former North Carolina Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, who is perhaps best known today for his campaigns to advance white supremacy. I agree it should be replaced. The problem is who North Carolina wants to represent the state instead. North Carolina wants to replace Aycock with a statue of the evangelical preacher Billy Graham. Graham may have been the spiritual advisor to every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama before his death in 2018, but he wasn’t known for welcoming all people into Christianity. In 1973, he said that homosexuality is a “sinister form of perversion” in his advice column, responding to a girl who wrote in and said she was in love with another girl. “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of spiritual welfare,” he wrote. “Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected and will be judged by God’s holy standards.” He then claimed that the U.S. “applauded” homosexuality because “morals have so eroded” and advised the girl to be “converted” and that “such reformation is possible for you.”

In 1993, he said that AIDS was “God’s punishment” for homosexuality. “I could not say for sure, but I think so,” he said. Two weeks later he retracted the remark, saying, “I don’t believe that, and I don’t know why I said it,” but we all know why he said it. He believed it. Graham also opposed same-sex marriage, and in 2012 he took out full-page ads in favor of North Carolina Amendment 1 which banned it in North Carolina. Graham’s stated position was that he did not want to talk about homosexuality as a political issue. Corky Siemaszko, writing for NBC News, noted that after the 1993 incident, Graham “largely steered clear of the subject.” Graham may have kept mostly silent publicly after the 1993 incident, but it’s obvious he must not have privately. His son, who is now CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and of Samaritan’s Purse, is one of the most virulent homophobic men in America. He is also a major Trump supporter. One example of his vitriol towards gay people came when he attacked former presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg. Graham attacked Buttigieg for his homosexuality and marriage to another gay man in April 2019, tweeting “Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women.”  Franklin has kept his father’s website which still says that sex is sin unless it’s “within a marriage between a man and a woman” and that the Bible “speaks only negatively of homosexual behavior whenever it is mentioned.”

So, here is my question: Why is it acceptable to place a statue of an extremely influential homophobe in the National Statuary Hall in this day and age?

The answer is simple. What it boils down to is this: within American politics, it is still acceptable by many to be homophobic, but from many of the same people it is not acceptable to be a racist. What is the difference? The difference is that with all the gains the LGBTQ+ community have made, we are still second-class citizens and the religious right wants to keep it that way. For many out there, LGBTQ+ lives do not matter. It is inherently wrong to be either racist or homophobic. Americans must realize that.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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