This week we learned that someone in the Mississippi Capitol removed a statue of Theodore G. Bilbo from a central meeting room. Where the statue now resides remains a mystery, but hopefully in a dark, dank basement corner under a dirty shroud.
Bilbo is a prime example of the past that Mississippi seeks to leave behind, and having a statue of him prominently displayed in the state Capitol sends the wrong message.
Standing at only 5’2”, Bilbo had a giant influence on our state as a lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator. He signed into law the first state sales tax in the nation. He championed compulsory school attendance laws and increased education spending. As a U.S. senator, he strongly supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Granted, Bilbo also nearly bankrupted the state in his second term in a fight with the Legislature, fired three university presidents and replaced them with cronies, and tried to move the University of Mississippi from Oxford — but you cannot argue that he had some positive, lasting influences on Mississippi.
Nor can you argue that he was a proud, unabashed racist.
He attacked a political opponent for using the National Guard to protect a Black prisoner from being lynched.
Bilbo publicly admitted being a member of the Ku Klux Klan during an interview with Meet the Press, then a radio show, saying, “Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux.”
As a U.S. senator, he advocated relieving unemployment by deporting 12 million Black Americans to Liberia.
And Bilbo co-wrote the book “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization,” the title of which pretty much speaks for itself.
Bilbo should be studied for his place in Mississippi history, and any positive impact he had can be appreciated for what it was. But it all must be taken in context with the whole. Bilbo was a racist, and “racial purity” was a driving concern throughout his life. He is in no way someone who should be celebrated.
The same can be said about Jefferson Davis and James Z. George — the two men who are memorialized in the U.S. Capitol with statues representing the Magnolia State. These men, like Bilbo, belong in history books and museums, not on pedestals as icons of Mississippi.
Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America. What bigger representation of the sins of Mississippi’s past can you get than the man who led the states that ceded from America over so-called states rights, the chief of which was the right to own slaves?
George helped craft and then signed the Mississippi Secession Ordinance, served as a Confederate colonel, and worked to pass both state and federal laws to disenfranchise Black voters.
Yet these are the men who represent Mississippi in our nation’s Capitol? It is a disgrace, and it is past time we made a change. Mississippi’s history is not just slavery and racial strife. Countless Mississippians have made significant contributions to our country. Finding two people who represent what Mississippi is today would be hard only from the standpoint of there being so many deserving choices.
Interestingly enough, the Mississippi Legislature has the power to change who represents us in the U.S. Capitol. Bilbo was moved in Jackson. Now it’s time to replace Davis and George in Washington.