Thursday, February 10, 2022
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mystery solved: The top administrator in the Mississippi House says he unilaterally made the decision to take a statue of a racist former Gov. Theodore Bilbo off public display and put it into storage.
House clerk Andrew Ketchings spoke to reporters Wednesday, answering a question that has been all the buzz at the state Capitol: Where's Bilbo?
People starting noticing in recent weeks that a bronze statue of the late governor had disappeared. It was on display for decades — first in the center of the Capitol, and since the 1980s in a House committee room.
“It was purely my decision, 100%,” Ketchings told The Associated Press and Mississippi Today.
As clerk, Ketchings has the power to authorize paint jobs, new carpet and other maintenance for spaces used by the state House of Representatives.
He said a work crew moved the Bilbo statue on a Saturday in October, at a cost of about $4,000 to $5,000, paid by public money. It is now covered by a fire-resistant blanket, in a large closet behind one of the Capitol elevators.
Bilbo was a Democrat known for racist rhetoric. He was governor from 1916 until 1920 and again for the 1928-1932 term. He was in the U.S. Senate from 1935 until he died in 1947.
Ketchings said he had been bothered by the statue for years “because of everything he stood for.”
“It was way past time to do it. I just read through a lot of his quotes that were offensive,” said Ketchings, who was a Republican Mississippi House member from 1996 to 2004.
The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus often meets in the room where the Bilbo statue was last on display, and Black lawmakers in the past have asked for the statue to be moved. The figure is approximately life-sized, at 5 feet, 2 inches (158 centimeters). People sometimes hung their coats or purses on its outstretched arm.
Statues of Confederate soldiers and generals have been removed from public display in several places across the South in recent years amid debates about how the U.S. should acknowledge troubling parts of its history.
In the summer of 2020, Mississippi legislators voted to retire the last state flag in the U.S. that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. Months later, voters approved a new Mississippi flag without Confederate imagery.
During Bilbo's last campaign in 1946, a group of Black Mississippi residents filed a petition with the U.S. Senate, saying Bilbo had used “inflammatory appeals" to white people and incited violence that discouraged Black voters from participating in the Democratic primary, according to the U.S. Senate. A bipartisan group of senators traveled to Mississippi to hear testimony. A majority of them sided with Bilbo and said he should be seated, but a minority wrote a report saying Bilbo had used “vile, contemptible, inflammatory and dangerous language."