JACKSON, Miss. — If it were left up to Mississippians, Elvis Presley or B.B. King might be there. Or William Faulkner or Eudora Welty. Or Medgar Evers or Fannie Lou Hamer.
It’s a special spot at the U.S. Capitol where visitors can see statues representing each state.
But instead of glimpsing a statue of the King of Rock ‘n’ Rock or one of the world’s most talented writers or the civil rights leader whose frank testimony frightened then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, visitors see statues placed there more than three-quarters of a century ago.
In 1931, Mississippi gave the U.S. Capitol statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and J.Z. George, chief architect of the state's notorious 1890 Constitution. (Neither, by the way, was born in the state.)
Gov. Phil Bryant said he would be willing to have “a general discussion about the Mississippi statues, particularly J.Z. George. B.B. King and Elvis would both be good possibilities for a replacement.”
On Wednesday, a panel at the University of Mississippi will debate whether one or both statues should be replaced.
William “Brother” Rogers, president of the Mississippi Historical Society, who will serve on that panel, said Presley, Faulkner, Welty, Evers and Hamer are all worthy candidates.
If King, Evers or Hamer were chosen, it would be the first statue from any state representing an African-American.
Time for a change?
Al Price remembers how excited he was in 2012 to visit the U.S. Capitol for the first time. He remembers, too, how stunned he was to see the statues that represented his native state.
“I was absolutely embarrassed that everybody in the country thinks Mississippi believes our two best representatives of our state are epitomized by Jefferson Davis and Zach George,” he said.
Price wrote a note, urging state Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, to change the statues.
“My thought was that the present two persons honored — Jefferson Davis and James Z. George — conjure images of the secession, the Civil War, slavery and the terrible legacy of Jim Crow,” he said.
Chassaniol rejected the suggestion, saying she was involved in developing George’s mansion, where scenes of the movie The Help were shot.
“I not only find your suggestion to be a bad idea, but one I would actively oppose,” she wrote. “We cannot change history, but we can learn from it.”
She praised George as “a small-town attorney, a staunch defender of the common man, a United States senator, a proponent of Mississippi's agriculture and the chief justice of Mississippi's Supreme Court.”
She criticized those “who refuse to recognize the efforts of the 19th-century pioneers who settled this state and carved a civilization from the wilderness. I refuse to take part in revisionist history and ask the members of the Mississippi Senate to do the same.”
Kevin Greene, assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi, said good historians strive to tell the whole story and that George was an architect of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, which “set in motion a model for Jim Crow segregation for the rest of the South to follow.”
He said Davis and George “are direct representations of the endless contradictions that make up American history and this nation.”
Timothy B. Smith, who wrote a biography on George, suggested that Congress "move from its short-sighted policy of limiting statues to two per state. ... I would much rather see a continuum of historical observation by adding new statues as we produce more history."
When the newspaper asked Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves about the statues, he said it was the first time anyone has ever mentioned them.
Who's J.Z. George?
The namesake of the majority-black J.Z. George High School in North Carrollton can be found all over the campus — on the front of the school, the gymnasium and on T-shirts that students and staff members wear.
His name can even be seen on the ceiling of the main office.
But students’ knowledge of George was limited.
“I’m going to be completely honest,” confessed Justin Randle, a 17-year-old senior. “I don’t know that much about him.”
Classmates Taylor Everett and Christopher Nalls knew that George was a U.S. senator who was involved in writing Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution.
What they didn’t know was this Constitution was designed to disenfranchise African-Americans through poll taxes and other means.
Students at J.Z. George expressed their support for King, Faulkner, Presley, Faith Hill and Oprah Winfrey as Mississippians who would best represent the state.
States now have the option of replacing statues, most of which were erected in the 1930s or earlier. Seven states have done that, and more are expected to follow suit.
In 2009, neighboring Alabama replaced its statue of Confederate politician and army officer Jabez Curry with Helen Keller.
That same year, California replaced orator Thomas Starr King, an American Unitarian minister involved in California politics during the Civil War, with former president Ronald Reagan.
In 2011, Michigan replaced former U.S. senator Zachariah Chandler, a founder of the Republican Party and lifelong abolitionist, with former president Gerald Ford.
Last year, Ohio replaced one-time governor William Allen, a vocal critic of Abraham Lincoln's administration throughout the Civil War, with Thomas Edison after considering a number of Ohioans for the honor, including the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong among a host of other astronauts, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Jesse Owens.
If Mississippi did decide to make a change, it would require the approval of the state Legislature and the governor.
Wesley Busbee, professor emeritus of history at Belhaven College, suggested four candidates for replacement: Welty, Evers, former governor William Winter and former U.S. Supreme Court justice L.Q.C. Lamar, who was featured in John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage.
Charles Sallis, co-author of the classic Mississippi history textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, sees Winter as an ideal candidate because he represents “the change that has taken place” in the state.
Former Jackson State University Interim President Leslie B. McLemore, who worked in the civil rights movement with Hamer and Evers, would like to see Hamer represent Mississippi, along with Evers or Winter.
“She was a leader who emerged from the people and really had a national impact on American politics,” he said.
Malcolm White, executive director for the Mississippi Arts Commission, sees Evers and former U.S. Sen. John Stennis as obvious picks from the political arena.
But he said if the criteria centered on who was most influential, the picks would be Faulkner and Presley.
State Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, a member of the advisory board for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, said the state needs to get away from the divisive images of Davis and George.
He said he sees plenty of worthy candidates: John R. Lynch, Mississippi’s first black congressman; Hiram Revels, the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate; Evers, the Mississippi NAACP leader who was assassinated in 1963; James Meredith, the first known African-American student to attend the University of Mississippi; and Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers, who became a civil rights leader in her own right, chairing the national NAACP and bringing it back from bankruptcy.
If Davis were kept as a statue, Horhn says Revels would make the best counterpoint.
The statues at the U.S. Capitol need to be updated to “pay tribute to the heritage that we are all proud of,” he said.
Terry Burton, R-Newton, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said he would absolutely be willing for his committee to discuss the matter.
“How you narrow it down with so many great persons who have contributed to the American way of life?” he asked. “That will be the difficult thing.”
Follow Jerry Mitchell on Twitter: @jmitchellnews
The (Jackson, Miss.) Cla