12/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hey North Carolina: Maybe It's Time to Rethink Your White Supremacist Statue in the U.S. Capitol

Yes, folks, as our nation celebrates the election of its first black president, there is a statue on display in the U.S. Capitol honoring a white supremacist -- North Carolina Governor Charles Brantley Aycock. This statue, added to the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall collection in 1932, immortalizes in stone a man who ran for office under the banner of "White Supremacy and Its Perpetuation" and, once elected, promptly followed through on his campaign promise to disenfranchise black voters.

Statuary Hall, created by an 1864 act of Congress, is a permanent exhibit in the U.S. Capitol consisting of two statues from each state depicting "deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or from distinguished civic or military service." To accommodate what has grown to be a hundred statues, the collection is now housed partly in the original Statuary Hall, with the rest of the statues prominently displayed in other areas of the building. North Carolina's Aycock statue is one of six statues in an area known as the Crypt, originally constructed as an architectural necessity to contain the columns supporting the large open rotunda above, and now used as a museum.

Aycock, who had participated in the 1898 Wilmington race riot that overthrew that city's democratically elected government, easily won the state's gubernatorial election of 1900, and proceeded to implement a plan to amend the North Carolina constitution to disenfranchise black voters. Incredibly, Aycock, who famously stated, "There shall be no progress in the South for either race until the Negro is removed permanently from the political process," actually touted himself as a friend of the black citizens of his state. After all, he was opposed to lynchings, and did fight for the right of blacks to equal public education -- equal, of course, as in separate but equal. And taking away their right to vote? Well, that was really just for their own good.

So, how did Aycock and his supporters circumvent that pesky Fifteenth Amendment and keep blacks from voting? Well, they didn't use race to disqualify blacks from voting. They used literacy, amending their state constitution to bar all illiterates, whether black or white, from voting. A temporary grandfather clause, however, exempted from this literacy test until 1908 anyone who had voted prior to 1867, or whose father or grandfather had voted prior to 1867. And what North Carolina illiterates of voting age in 1900 had fathers or grandfathers who would have voted prior to 1867? Why, the white ones, of course. The only blacks exempted from the literacy test were a negligibly small minority whose fathers or grandfathers had been free blacks who voted prior to 1835, the year that a law allowing free blacks to vote was repealed.

Even Aycock's significant improvements to North Carolina's public education system, the reason for which he was ostensibly honored by his state with a statue in the Capitol, were in large part driven by his desire to keep the state's electorate as white as possible. While Aycock did promote education for blacks, it was improving the public school system for whites that he promised would ensure the dominance of white voters when the literacy test grandfather clause expired in 1908.

After the successful disenfranchisement of black voters in his own state, Aycock became a popular speaker, traveling to other states to explain how he had solved the "Negro problem." The following is from one such speech, delivered in December 1903 to the North Carolina Society in Baltimore, Maryland:

"These are some of the reasons for my being proud of North Carolina. I am proud of my State, moreover, because there we have solved the Negro problem which recently seems to have given you some trouble. We have taken him out of politics and have thereby secured good government under any party and laid foundations for the future development of both races. We have secured peace and rendered prosperity a certainty. I am inclined to give to you our solution of this problem. It is, first, as far as possible under the Fifteenth Amendment to disfranchise him; after that let him alone, quit writing about him; quit talking about him, quit making him 'the white man's burden,' let him 'tote his own skillet;' quit coddling him, let him learn that no man, no race, ever got anything worth the having that he did not himself earn; that character is the outcome of sacrifice and worth is the result of toil; that whatever his future may be, the present has in it for him nothing that is not the product of industry, thrift, obedience to law and uprightness; that he cannot by resolution of council or league, accomplish anything; that he can do much by work; that violence may gratify his passions but it cannot accomplish his ambitions; that he may eat rarely of the cooking of equality, but he will always find that when he does that 'there is death in the pot.' Let the Negro learn once for all that there is an unending separation of the races, that the two peoples may develop side by side to the fullest but that they cannot intermingle; let the white man determine that no man shall by act or though or speech cross this line, and the race problem will be at an end. These things are not said in enmity to the Negro but in regard for him. He constitutes one-third of the population of my State: he has always been my personal friend; as a lawyer I have often defended him, and as Governor I have frequently protected him. But there flows in my veins the blood of the dominant race; that race that has conquered the earth and seeks out the mysteries of the heights and the depths. If manifest destiny leads to the seizure of Panama, it is certain that it likewise leads to the dominance of the Caucasian. When the Negro recognizes this fact we shall have peace and good will between the races."

So, North Carolina, now that your state has voted for a black president (which must certainly have old Governor Aycock rolling in his grave), and voted your two worst Christian supremacists, Robin Hayes and Elizabeth Dole, out of Congress, why don't you stay on a roll and consider replacing your statue of this white supremacist with a more appropriate and honorable character from your history, one who, unlike Aycock, deserves the distinction of being immortalized in stone in the U.S. Capitol.