By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Congress a few years ago spent $600 million to build a visitors center at the Capitol, and one of the first things those visitors see is a statue honoring an Arkansan whose views on race came from his own time, and need to stay there.
James Paul Clarke was Arkansas’ 18th governor from 1895-96 and then served more than two terms in the U.S. Senate after the turn of the century. He was president pro tempore of the Senate, broke with his party to support the Panama Canal, and supported progressive legislation, including opposing literacy tests for immigrants.
He was deemed worthy of being one of two Arkansans celebrated in Congress’ National Statuary Hall Collection – the other being Uriah Rose, founder of the Rose Law Firm and a nationally prominent attorney during the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s. But Clarke also, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, supported white supremacy as an important Democratic Party doctrine. Campaigning for governor in 1894, he said, “The people of the South looked to the Democratic Party to preserve the white standards of civilization.”
We are all a product of our time, and I don’t condemn him too much for believing what was commonly believed then. But whether or not he was right on all those other issues of his era, he nevertheless was wrong on this really important one. He doesn’t represent the best of Arkansas, and he doesn’t represent all Arkansans. The state should grant its highest honors to the most honorable.
Aside from his views on race, he is not a titanic historical figure in Arkansas history, much less American history. Certainly, he does not compare to historical figures representing other states, such as Virginia’s George Washington and Kansas’ Dwight Eisenhower. One of Oklahoma’s is Will Rogers, while Helen Keller is one of Alabama’s. On the other hand, many states also are represented by forgotten or forgettable figures, and by those who also should be replaced, such as Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Perhaps Arkansas should follow the lead of some states that have replaced statues in recent years, such as California, which swapped one of its statues for President Reagan in 2009; Michigan, which honored President Ford with a statue in 2011; and Arizona, which enshrined Sen. Barry Goldwater in 2015. In September, Ohio replaced one of its own white supremacists with Thomas Edison, paying the sculptor $80,000 for the job.
Replacing a statue would require an act of the Legislature, which happens to be meeting starting next month. It also would require funding, of which there is never enough considering money does not yet grow on trees.
I’m doubting Clarke would have many defenders. The controversy would involve paying for the new statue and, of course, deciding who to pick.
According to the 1864 law establishing the collection, the statue must honor a deceased person. Some off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions would be:
– Hattie Caraway, the nation’s first female senator.
– Daisy Bates, civil rights leader and mentor to the Little Rock Nine as they integrated Central High School.
– Johnny Cash, famous country singer.
– Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. To help pay for the statue, perhaps the state could form a public-private partnership with a well-funded company or foundation. Hmm. Who might have that kind of money?
The selection would not have to enjoy universal support. Not every Californian is a Reagan fan, and even Edison has his detractors because of his tough, even ruthless business practices. But the statue would need to be someone historically important, clearly tied to the state, and recognizable. Most importantly, it should be someone the entire state can be proud of – someone of whom Arkansans could say, “We had the only one of these, and you didn’t.”
History changes as our lenses through which we view it are extended. Those who seem important today can be forgotten tomorrow. Some should be forgotten. And some just really weren’t that memorable to begin with. It’s not a crisis, but Arkansas should find someone else to honor and put on display as a representative of the state.
I’d probably go with Walton. Who would you pick?