Like Lewis, Stephens was also a legislator in Georgia. Elected Whig in 1843, he gradually began to vote with Democrats in the following decades. He was elected as a delegate to the Georgia Secession Convention, established in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. The same year, he was elected vice president of the Provisional Government by the Congress of the Confederacy.
Stephens delivered a speech that is arguably the clearest distillation of white supremacy not long before the first shots of the civil war were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861. He argued in the now infamous “Cornerstone” speech that the founders were wrong; that there was no real tension between freedom and racial-based slavery if science and God’s purpose were well understood. Many governments are based on the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; they were and are contrary to the laws of nature. Our system does not commit such a violation of natural law. With us, the whole white race, no matter how high or low, rich or poor, is equal in the eyes of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He is by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, fit for the condition he fulfills in our system, ”Stephens thundered during the speech.
He said that the “cornerstone” of the Confederate States of America, whose constitution established permanent black slavery, was based on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subservient to the superior race is its natural and normal state This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth … It is on this, as I said, that our social fabric is firmly planted. “
He made explicit what Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others had implicitly made in the U.S. Constitution about eight decades earlier, which number of clauses that protected the interests of slave owners.
Does not matter. The Architect of the Capitol, the agency in charge of historic buildings in Washington describes Stephens as “a devoted statesman, an effective leader, and a powerful orator, always seeking moderation and peace,” a whitewashed tale of an overt racist all too typical in American history. This denial has allowed a man like Donald Trump to become president despite his many mistakes and lack of political experience, and a man like Lewis is unlikely to make it to the White House despite his extraordinary role in helping to perfect this nation .
It took Americans like Lewis – and Rev. CT Vivian, another civil rights icon who died last week – to undo the damage done by men like Stephens. It was Americans like Lewis who really made the words Thomas Jefferson wrote. It was Americans like Lewis who lived a life of self-sacrifice in a way that many previous leaders failed. Lewis loved the white people who repeatedly imprisoned and beat him and nearly killed him. George Washington couldn’t be bothered to free the black men and women who were slaves to his estate. The bankruptcy of the ideas of men like Stephens and Pettus was made clearer by the presence of Americans like Lewis.
That’s why he’s the kind of American that we should have built monuments and memorials for a long time. And we shouldn’t have even downplayed or ignored his participation in great evil by saying he was just “a man of his time” – because he was too busy building a new era. He fought for racial equality for black people and Native Americans and people in the LBGTQ community and anyone he found wrong on inequalities and discrimination.
Although I only met him once, I suspect Lewis would tell us that instead of replacing the Stephens statue with a statue in front of him, he would rather see the voting rights law restored; that he would like us to remember the injustice inflicted on Breonna Taylor, her family and community, and the importance of achieving important, long-term police reforms; that while symbols are powerful and must be tampered with, he wouldn’t want us to settle for such gestures. (He supported removal of the bust of Stephens, but not in favor of renaming the Pettus Bridge, saying that such a change would “compromise the historical integrity of the voting rights movement”). He would warn us never to forget what his friend Martin Luther King Jr. said that injustice everywhere threatens justice everywhere.
This country has seldom earned the kindness, courage, and compassion of men like Lewis, who have never let their righteous rage turn into a burning bitterness. Replacing a statue compared to the sacrifices Lewis made is easy work, but it shows a commitment to finish his work and leave our old idols behind. That’s the least we owe him.