House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is marking this Juneteenth, and the weeks of protest that have preceded it, by requesting the “immediate removal” from the U.S. Capitol of portraits of some very significant Confederate traitors—four of whom, in addition to serving in the Confederacy, were also speakers of the U.S. House.
Calling Juneteenth “a beautiful and proud celebration of freedom for African Americans” and noting that “this day comes during a moment of extraordinary national anguish, as we grieve for the hundreds of Black Americans killed by racial injustice and police brutality, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others,” Pelosi set down a marker. “There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy,” Pelosi wrote in her letter to the clerk of the House.
“We cannot honor men such as James Orr, who swore on the House Floor to ‘preserve and perpetuate’ slavery in order to ‘enjoy our property in peace, quiet and security,’ or Robert Hunter, who served at nearly every level of the Confederacy, including in the Confederate Provincial Congress, as Confederate Secretary of State, in the Confederate Senate and in the Confederate Army,” she continued. “The portraits of these men are symbols that set back our nation’s work to confront and combat bigotry.”
The speakers whose portraits Pelosi is having removed are Robert Hunter of Virginia (1839-1841), Howell Cobb of Georgia (1849-1851), James Orr of South Carolina (1857-1859), and Charles Crisp of Georgia (1891-1895).
Pelosi’s move comes as protesters are removing Confederate statues on their own when authorities won’t do the right thing; after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he’d be “open to a bipartisan discussion” of renaming military bases currently named after Confederates; and after the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to strip Confederate names from those bases. Despite the committee being controlled by Republicans and the measure having been offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But it also comes after Donald Trump flatly rejected the possibility of removing the names of people who fought against the United States from its military bases, and after Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy whined that “I don’t think we ought to just pick on the South.”
This is one of those moments when we can see the arc of the moral universe being bent, slowly, toward justice—and we see why it’s slowed because of all the powerful people kicking and screaming and acting as if justice would be a personal outrage against them. There’s a lot more work to be done.