CHICAGO (CBS/AP) — Believing the current statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Springfield is not a proper depiction of the civil rights icon, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is calling for the creation of a new monument in a more prominent location, and is putting up $5,000 to help make it happen.
“I stand ready to help in any way that will bring about a new statue of Dr. King that is prominent, dignified and representative not only of the man as I knew him but of the man as he was known to the nation and the world,” White said in a statement on Tuesday. “This includes contributing the first $5,000 to this effort. Dr. King is an icon ― a man who stood for equality, who rejected bigotry and segregation, and who did so in a non-violent manner.”
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The current statue of King, depicting him walking with his jacket slung over his shoulder and his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, stands across the street from the Illinois State Capitol building. White said a monument to King should be in a more prominent location on the Capitol grounds, and he believes the current statue “does not properly reflect Dr. King.”
White’s call to replace the statue comes three weeks after Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch formed a new task force to review all of the statues, monuments, and other artifacts on state property, to determine if any offensive depictions should be removed and replaced. The task force will hold public hearings on the various monuments and make recommendations about which historic Illinois figures should be honored on state property.
“There is a national movement in… re-evaluating public art, the extent to which they accurately reflect history and how they impact people who have been marginalized from our history,” Welch, a Democrat from Hillside and the state’s first Black House speaker, said in a statement last month. “… When our public art doesn’t represent positive history that we can all celebrate, it sends a particularly harmful message to people of color that these beliefs are shared by their own government.”
The announcement of the task force was just the latest step in efforts to review monuments at the Capitol and on other state property, as many historical figures have come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the growing demands for racial equality following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Amid the civil unrest following Floyd’s death last spring, state and local governments across the nation began reconsidering public memorials to figures from Christopher Columbus to leaders of the antebellum Confederacy. In Chicago, which has felled Columbus statues, a commission has earmarked 41 monuments for review as part of a “racial healing and historical reckoning project.”
Last year, former House Speaker Michael Madigan urged the removal of a statue of former U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, a slave owner, from the capitol grounds, as well as a statue of the state’s first lieutenant governor, Pierre Menard, who was also a slave owner. A portrait of Douglas in the House chamber has since been covered up.
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Some historians argue that Douglas’ famous debates with Lincoln and later support of his rival as the president who engineered slavery’s demise outweigh his racial sins. But the board of the Architect of the Capitol approved last year’s removal of the the Douglas statue and one of Pierre Menard, an early Illinois settler, politician and slave owner.
“This review is not about erasing history,” said Illinois State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), who in January became the longest-serving Black legislator in Illinois history, and will lead the bipartisan Statue and Monument Review Task Force. “In fact, the goal of this task force is to ensure that our artwork reflects an accurate retelling of our history and the contributions made by all people.”
The architect’s board, led by Secretary of the Senate Tim Anderson, also approved pursuing a change in state law that would allow non-native Illinoisans to be celebrated on Capitol grounds. Board members have an eye toward a more conspicuous display of the statue across the street of Martin Luther King Jr., a Georgia native whose seminal civil rights itinerary included the 1965-66 Chicago Freedom Movement largely credited with prompting the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The panel begins its work with proverbial elephants in the room — inside the 1876 statehouse. While the exterior Douglas statue was eliminated, his portrait, now covered, hangs in the House chamber on the opposite side of Lincoln’s, and another imposing effigy of the “Little Giant” remains in the second-floor rotunda, staring across a hallway at an equally impressive Lincoln, both created by renowned sculptor and Lincoln death-mask creator Leonard Volk, whose benefactor was Douglas.
The architect board skirted the interior Douglas conundrum by ordering an inventory of all Capitol art to be used in a comprehensive review. Architect of the Capitol Andrea Aggertt said Wednesday it will be completed late this year or early next year.
Accompanying Lincoln and Douglas around the second floor circle are six other statues, including those commemorating the state’s first Black state senator, Adelbert H. Roberts; Lottie Holman O’Neill, the first woman elected to the House, and Mayor Richard J. Daley, influential “boss” of Chicago for two decades.
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