What two historical Arkansans are most deserving of one of the state’s highest honors and would best represent it before the nation and world?
I’ll give you a second.
You may have said Walmart founder Sam Walton, singer Johnny Cash, civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates, or Sen. Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
You probably didn’t mention Uriah Rose, founder of the Rose Law Firm, or James Paul Clarke, who served one term as Arkansas’ 18th governor from 1895-96 and later two terms in the U.S. Senate. But those are the two figures who have been memorialized in Congress’ National Statuary Hall Collection for about the past 100 years – Rose since 1917, and Clarke since 1921.
That might change.
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, thinks it’s time to swap out the statues, which occupy places in the U.S. Capitol along with two from each of the other states. Visiting the Capitol in 2017, he was struck by the contrast between Arkansas’ two mostly forgotten honorees and some of the other states’ well-known historical figures, like Ohio’s Thomas Edison and Oklahoma’s Will Rogers. Other figures include Virginia’s George Washington and Alabama’s Helen Keller.
Hester started trying to change the statues too late in the 2017 legislative session, and he also ran into an unexpected snag when a couple of families of recognizable Arkansans declined the offer to be considered. This time, he started early.
He wants a controlled process. He said something like a statewide campaign where people vote online could become a contest between localities, or it could be manipulated by outside influences and result in a “crazy name” winning.
Instead, he plans to file a bill with two names, pending approval by the families, who he says “stood for something bigger than themselves.” One would be Adam Brown, a decorated Navy SEAL sniper born in Hot Springs who served in Iraq and died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Brown’s statue could be inscribed at the base with other names from various services and wars to honor all Arkansans who died serving the country. He wants the other statue to honor the Little Rock Nine students who integrated Central High School in 1957. The statues must portray a deceased person, and of the nine, only Jefferson Thomas has died.
Once Hester files the bill, the names could be changed by other legislators through amendments. He says Arkansans should contact their state senators and representatives to voice their preferences. He’s already been lobbied via Twitter by U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, whose eastern Arkansas 1st Congressional District is Johnny Cash’s childhood home.
Both Rose and Clarke have occupied spots in the Capitol for about 100 years. No doubt at the time they seemed historically important. Rose was a nationally known attorney. But who in 2018 would say they represent us better than any other Arkansans who have ever lived? Clarke is problematic because, while running for governor in 1894, he said, “The people of the South looked to the Democratic Party to preserve the white standards of civilization,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Other states have statues that no longer best represent them, and some have changed theirs in recent years. California swapped one of its statues for President Ronald Reagan in 2009, while Michigan did the same to honor President Gerald Ford in 2011. Edison’s statue took its place in the Capitol in 2016.
Ohio paid the Edison sculptor $80,000, and there would be transportation costs. Hester thinks this is important enough to pay for using public or private funds. In fact, he mused that the state might want to replace the statues every couple of decades.
Selecting the statues would be a statement about Arkansas’ values, so this could turn into a big political fight that ends in a stalemate. Clarke’s great-great-grandson is state Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, who is running for Congress, and things get interpreted politically and personally in the Legislature very quickly.
In November, Arkansas voters are electing the members of Congress who will represent them at the U.S. Capitol for the next two years. The statues, however, could represent Arkansas for the next 100. So a century from now, who would you want alongside Helen Keller and Thomas Edison?
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.