Civil rights experts say replacing Roger Taney statue with Thurgood Marshall's is overdue

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A marble bust of Chief Justice Roger Taney
A marble bust of Chief Justice Roger Taney on display at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Last Wednesday, Congress passed legislation to remove from the Capitol the bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which denied African Americans the right to citizenship and ruled that the Constitution protected slavery. The notorious ruling was effectively overturned by the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War.

The bill seeking the removal of the statue received unanimous support in a bipartisan vote, and now the legislation is headed to President Biden’s desk.

“While the removal of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s bust from the Capitol does not relieve the Congress of the historical wrongs it committed to protect the institution of slavery, it expresses Congress’s recognition of one of the most notorious wrongs to have ever taken place in one of its rooms, that of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision,” the legislation states.

Once Biden signs the legislation, the statue, which sits at the entrance of the Old Supreme Court Chamber, will have 45 days to be removed.

Thurgood Marshall

“While we cannot remove the stones and bricks that were placed here in bondage, we can ensure that the moveable pieces of art we display here celebrate freedom, not slavery, not sedition, not segregation,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement on Dec. 14, the day the legislation passed.

The bill directs the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library to replace Taney’s bust with that of Thurgood Marshall, who served as the Supreme Court’s first African American justice from 1967 to 1991. Marshall fought against segregation as the NAACP’s chief counsel and played a key role in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ordered the desegregation of K-12 schools.

“As a towering civil rights leader, defending our founding principles and the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Marshall is a Marylander worthy of a place of honor in these historic halls,” Hoyer, D-Md., added in reference to the fact that Marshall and Taney were both Maryland natives.

Marshall’s son, Thurgood Marshall Jr., who is also a lawyer, told Yahoo News that his father would be proud of this honor.

“I know he would be immensely moved,” Marshall Jr. said. “Our family is overjoyed and deeply honored. And we're immensely grateful to Congressman Hoyer and Senator Cardin and the entire Maryland delegation for paving the way to make this a reality.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP) (AP)

Marshall ruled “not just from the perspective of a certain group maintaining power, but understanding and sharing that power for the greater good of all of us,” Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Yahoo News.

Some experts say honoring Marshall is long overdue. “I think it’s actually a shame that one was not instituted earlier. Marshall left the court 30 years ago. So it’s high time for there to be a statue of Thurgood Marshall commemorating his great achievement,” Raff Donelson, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College, told Yahoo News.

This comes as states around the country take down Confederate statues and monuments. Nationwide, at least 168 Confederate symbols have been removed since 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The push to replace the statue of Taney is commencing five years after a statue of him was removed from the Maryland State House. “Removing him from the Supreme Court in Washington is just another step in removing these figures who supported slavery,” Donelson said.

Lawmakers have been pushing to remove Confederate symbols from the public square. Most recently, the city of Richmond, Va., removed its last Confederate monument of Gen. A.P. Hill.

While there was overwhelming support to remove and replace the bust of Taney, some states are faced with resistance to remove Confederate symbols at the local level.

Several states will issue large fines if a Confederate monument is removed. English said she is calling for Biden to sign an executive order that will prevent states from putting roadblocks in place when communities seek to remove Confederate monuments.

A monument dedicated to Chief Justice Roger Taney.
A statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney is removed from the Maryland State House in 2017. (Jose Luis Magana/AP) (AP)

But some say the removal of such symbols is an act of erasing history. A 2020 Washington Post poll found that 52% of Americans are against removing public statues that honor Confederate generals.

“While it is important to know our past, we should not honor those who sought to divide our nation with likenesses in these hallowed halls,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., in a Dec. 14 tweet.

“Yes, we ought to know who Roger Brooke Taney was, a man who was greatly admired in his time in the state of Maryland. But he was wrong. Over 3 million people visit our Capitol each year. The people we choose to honor in our halls signal to those visitors which principles we cherish as a nation,” Hoyer said.

The bill gives the court two years to replace the statue with a bust of Thurgood Marshall.

“This effort makes very clear that we believe, as a society, in equality and unity, as opposed to inequality and disunity,” Marshall Jr. said.