We agree with House Speaker Michael Madigan: A portrait of former President Barack Obama hanging in the Illinois House chamber in Springfield makes way more sense than a huge portrait of the late U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, whose family owned slaves.
We applaud the speaker for taking the lead in suggesting Douglas be eradicated from the Capitol. It shows awareness for what’s going on in America at this moment, and removing the portrait and two statues of Douglas from the seat of Illinois government sets the right tone.
Similarly, we applaud state representatives Kam Buckner, Curtis Tarver and Lamont Robinson for calling on a 9-foot tall statue of Douglas atop a 96-foot monument to be removed from its perch in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
Douglas’ tomb sits beneath the statue near 35th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. The lawmakers have no issue with Douglas’ grave remaining on the site.
But as they wrote to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday, the towering bronze statue “is an edifice dedicated to allowing a bigot even in his grave to look down upon the Black community.”
Those are powerful words.
But we’d also like to see some powerful actions come along with them.
We imagine Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot will heed the requests from Madigan and his three fellow Democrats to remove the tributes to Douglas. But the effect of taking down a symbol is shortlived.
The real challenge is for elected officials at every level of government — federal, state, county, city, school board and township — to set policies that promote social justice and solve the widening wealth gap in Illinois and the rest of the nation.
In Illinois and Chicago, we know there are programs to encourage racial and gender diversity in hiring and contracting, but they’ve long been watered down by white businesspeople setting up minority “fronts” to continue getting their share of the taxpayer-funded pie.
It’s also abundantly clear that Cook County’s property tax system has provided breaks to the rich — who can afford to hire property-tax appeal lawyers like Madigan to help them win tax reductions — at the expense of the poor.
Illinoisans will have a chance in November to make a bold statement about making our state more equal when they vote on Pritzker’s plan to replace Illinois’ flat-tax system with a graduated income tax that will allow high-income Illinoisans to bear more of the state’s tax burden. That’s a good start, but now — more than ever — is the time to see what else might be in our elected officials’ equity and inclusion playbooks.
The issue is similar to what we wrote last month as more American companies than ever called for racial justice: Expressions of social concern are appropriate and signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” are welcome at a time when America is having a historic racial reckoning. It’s heartening to see them in unexpected places, including the Mars Cheese Castle just over the border in Wisconsin.
But they matter less than concrete actions. Just as it is not enough for corporate America to pay lip service without taking action, the same is true of government.
It seems nowadays that you can’t move in America without bumping into a statue that harkens back to institutional racism. That’s how entrenched it is.
In Douglas’ case, he allied himself with Abraham Lincoln to defeat the Confederacy, but he also inherited through his wife a Mississippi plantation with enslaved persons, and he drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers to decide whether slavery would be allowed in a new state.
He once said, “I hold that this government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.”
But whether it’s Stephen Douglas, Christopher Columbus or any number of historical figures who have been glorified with monuments despite clearly offensive words and behaviors, there isn’t a one-sizefits-all solution for how to uproot all these symbols.
Getting the Douglas monuments out of the Illinois Capitol and its grounds — and cutting his legacy down to size in Bronzeville — is a good start toward making amends.
But let’s not forget about the bigger picture: A more economically fair Illinois and nation will go a much longer way toward ending racism.
A portrait of Stephen Douglas overlooks the Illinois House.
A statue of Stephen Douglas (left) inside the state Capitol in Springfield and Douglas’ tomb (right) in the Bronzeville neighborhood.