Civil rights leader Daisy Bates and music legend Johnny Cash to replace Arkansas statues at the US Capitol - East Idaho News
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Civil rights leader Daisy Bates and music legend Johnny Cash to replace Arkansas statues at the US Capitol

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(CNN) — The US Capitol will soon officially welcome two new, iconic figures.

A statue of Daisy Bates, a civil rights journalist and activist who is perhaps best known for her role as a mentor to the Little Rock Nine – a group of Black students who were the first to desegregate schools and break Arkansas’ color barrier – is replacing one of Uriah M. Rose, an attorney and former president of the Arkansas Bar Association.

Another statue – of James Paul Clarke, the state’s 18th governor – is set to be replaced in September by one of country music icon Johnny Cash.

The statues of Clarke and Rose have been in the US Capitol for more than a century, with Rose being installed in 1917 and Clarke in 1921. The National Statuary Hall’s collection includes two statues from all 50 states.

Bates’ statue was installed in the hall on May 3 and officially unveiled on Wednesday, during a ceremony organized by the office of House Speaker Mike Johnson.

The bill to replace Rose and Clarke’s statues was signed in April 2019 by then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Soon after, Bates and Cash were chosen as their replacements, CNN reported.

Many had called for taking down the previous Arkansas statue representatives, including Clarke’s own great-great-grandson, Democratic state Sen. Clarke Tucker.

Citing statements made by Clarke, including his 1894 proclamation that the people of the South had looked to the Democratic Party to “preserve the white standards of civilization,” Tucker said the change was needed. “In the context of who represents Arkansas in Statuary Hall, the time has come to move in a new direction,” he said.

Rose, meanwhile, had stayed loyal to Confederate Arkansas throughout the Civil War, according to the hall’s website.

Cash and Bates were Arkansas natives.

Cash was born in Kingsland before his family moved to Dyess in east Arkansas. After moving away for much of his professional career, Cash returned in 1968 to play the “Johnny Cash Homecoming Show,” and again in 1969 to play at Cummins Prison.

Bates grew up in Huttig, but moved to Little Rock in 1941, where she and her husband, Lucious Christopher “L.C.” Bates, started the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper devoted to the fight for civil rights. During her time as president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Bates led the charge for school desegregation, emerging as a key civil rights advocate during the 1957 desegregation of Central High School. Bates died in Little Rock in 1999.

“Removing these kinds of statues isn’t denying history as much as it’s saying, ‘We acknowledge the true history of it. We acknowledge this was wrong,’” said Benjamin Victor, the sculptor of Bates’ statue.

Victor said he sees the replacements as the “right thing to do,” noting the previous statues represent a time in American history “that was very ugly and awful.”

It’s not the first time the US Capitol has had Confederate statues removed from the Statuary Hall. In 2016, Florida state lawmakers voted to replace its statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with one of civil rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune. The statue was officially installed in July 2022, with Bethune making history as the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the Statuary Hall.

Victor, an artist from Idaho, has other statues on display in the collection — including Nevada’s Sarah Winnemucca, Nebraska’s Chief Standing Bear and Iowa’s Norman E. Borlaug. He is the only living artist to have three (now four) permanent portrait sculptures displayed in the Capitol, notes the Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs – an organization that helped secure Chief Standing Bear’s statue in 2019.

Little Rock-based artist Kevin Kresse, designer of Cash’s statue, has his installation and dedication tentatively scheduled for late September, said Shane Broadway, chairman of the National Statuary Hall Steering Committee.

Kresse is a lifelong, self-proclaimed “Arkansawyer” and Cash fan.

In choosing the details of Cash’s statue, Kresse included a Bible tucked in his hand and Cash’s signature guitar, which he referred to as Cash’s “backpack that took him all over the world.”

Kresse – who is 62 now but was 59 at the time of the Capitol commission – said when Cash was his age, “his star was starting to dim, but he didn’t know at the time that some of his most impactful work was right around the corner” – much like Kresse’s own career, he said.

Kresse doesn’t want the full significance of the moment to be forgotten, he said.

“(Both Daisy and Johnny are) two people who stood up for those who are overlooked, passed over and pushed off to the side,” Kresse told CNN.

“They both came from abject poverty and some real trauma and tragedy early in their life and I think it really (caused) both of them to never forget where they came from.”

The artists for both statues were selected through a national competition organized by the committee and the Arkansas Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission under the endorsement of Secretary of State John Thurston who also serves as chairman of the commission, Broadway said.

While the state of Arkansas handled the entire process of selecting a statue, choosing sculptors, and raising funds, “The Architect of the Capitol’s Curator oversees the process from Congress’ perspective and coordinates heavily with the states,” Grace White, communications director for the US Committee on House Administration, told CNN in a statement.

As a finalist, Victor traveled to Little Rock where he explained his vision to the selection committee while presenting a model of the statue. Victor didn’t know who Bates was prior to entering the competition but felt compelled to help share her story after learning of her “fearlessness.”

“She’s this sort of unsung hero in US history that I love to celebrate,” Victor told CNN. “This type of hero that everyone should know but relatively few people do know of. And we’re changing that with each of these statues.”

Throughout her 1987 memoir “The Long Shadow of Little Rock,” Bates likens her life to that of a red rose, which Victor incorporated on the statue’s lapel, he said. Above the rose sits a NAACP pin.

Victor believes the new statue’s imprint in history will be monumental.

“In that room in Statuary Hall, you got the spot where (Daisy) replaced Uriah Rose (and) it’s right next to (Confederate President) Jefferson Davis. It’s going to be a really powerful setting for Daisy to be included in because Jefferson Davis’s statue is sort of scowling. It looks kind of negative.

“And Daisy Bates is smiling and striding forward right next to him,” Victor said. “I think it’s this powerful juxtaposition and I hope Mississippi changes their statue (of Davis) soon. But for now, it’s everything we could do to bring somebody like this into the Capitol, change out that corner, and change out that area.”

Staring across from Bates, as Victor describes, are statues of Bethune and Rosa Parks.

“You’ve got (figures like) Daisy Bates, Rosa Parks, and Chief Standing Bear (there) because they helped people instead of trying to hurt people,” Victor said. “It’s hard to describe that feeling when (Bates) was installed in the room and the entire change of the room because of it.”

CNN’s Katie Bernard, Alex Rogers, Rikki Klaus, Devon M. Sayers, Annie Grayer and Clare Foran contributed to this report.

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