Credit Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for reintroducing us to Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. Stephens was a pro-slavery advocate and a leader of an insurrection against the United States government and the American people. Yet he and his ideas continue to be honored by place names and statues. There are counties named after Stephens in Georgia and Texas, and a Stephens Historic Park in Crawfordville, Georgia with a statue of Stevens at Liberty Hall, his former home.
One of the most egregious examples of honoring a racist and national traitor is a statue of Alexander Stephens in the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol building in Washington DC. Each state places two statutes in the hall. The Stephens statue has represented Georgia since 1927. The other Georgia honoree is Dr. Crawford W. Long, a 19th-century physician who pioneered the use ether in surgery. Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta has demanded that the Stephens statue be removed since 2015.
In an open letter published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this summer, two of his descendants urged that the statue be removed. They argued, “Confederate monuments need to come down. Put them in museums where people will learn about the context of their creation, but remove them from public spaces so that the descendants of enslaved people no longer walk beneath them at work and on campus.”
Before and after the Civil War, Alexander H. Stephens served in the United States House of Representatives, from 1843 to 1859 and from 1873 until 1882, where he defended slavery and opposed citizenship rights for African Americans. He was briefly imprisoned as a traitor after the war and was also briefly Governor of Georgia before his death in 1883.
The official federal Architect of the Capitol website describes Alexander Stephens as a “dedicated statesman, an effective leader, and a powerful orator, always seeking moderation and peace.” If you doubt Stephens’ bonafides as a racist and national traitor, these are selections from some of his speeches.
In a March 1861 speech Stephens delivered in Savannah, Georgia, after Southern states had formed the Confederacy and just before they attacked a United States fort in Charleston Harbor, he explained the “Cornerstone” or foundational principles of the Confederate Constitution. “Its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Stephens proceeded to attack “anti-slavery fanatics” who “assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.” He charged, “They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”
At the April 1861 Virginia secession convention, Stephens argued “negroes with us, under masters who care for, provide for and protect them, are better off, and enjoy more of the blessings of good government than their race does in any other part of the world.” He then declared, “the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition.”
After the Civil War, Stephens argued it was the South that had remained loyal to the United States Constitution, not the North or the nation. He continued to defend Southern secession and slavery, claiming, “We of the South will be acquitted, not only in our own consciences, but in the judgment of mankind, of all responsibility for so terrible a catastrophe, and from all guilt of so great a crime against humanity.”
In January 1874, after his return to the House of Representatives, Stephens led the opposition to passage of a civil rights bill intended to protect newly freed African Americans from White militias and the Ku Klux Klan. Stephens, who for decades had argued that Africans were inferior to whites, now claimed “my opposition to this bill springs from no prejudice, in the slightest degree, against any man, woman, or child within the limits of the United States, on account of race or color or previous condition of servitude. I entertain no feelings of that kind, and am not governed in my action here, nor elsewhere, by any influence of that sort,” but, and it is a big BUT, Stephens proclaimed “I do not hold the doctrine of the equality of races of men.” He argued the claim of equality in the Declaration of Independence was “never meant ... to convey the idea that men were created equal in all respects, either in physical, mental, or moral development.” Stephens said he accepted the notion of equality before the law, but in his view, “This requires no leveling of the population of a State” and “no equality and fraternity.”
Statues and place names celebrating people like Alexander H. Stephens are just another reason to support National Football League players “taking a knee” to protest racism and racial violence in the United States today.
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