U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2021: A Story of Racism in One Photo

Disgusting scene is full of images from America’s struggle for Civil Rights .

Steve Jones
Jan 9 · 4 min read
Inside the United States Capitol, January 6, 2021. (Photo MIKE THEILER / REUTERS/ BBC)

The man strides unopposed through the United States Capitol during the Trumpist insurrection on January 6. Over his left shoulder is a Confederate battle flag tacked to a dowel rod.

Behind him are depictions of three politicians who are intertwined in the story of American racism — one who championed slavery and Southern secession, another who vehemently opposed slavery, and a third who manipulated racism to gain the presidency.

It is one of those quirks in the flow of history — a historical convergence, perhaps — that brought these elements together on the day of the coup attempt. Reuters photographer Mike Theiler captured this image, which to me is destined to become one of the classic images of history, much like Robert Capa’s from D-Day, or Nick Ut’s photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc from the Vietnam War.

The capitol invader is obviously the center of the action in the photo. His presence in the halls is shocking enough to carry the image by itself. But who are those visages from the past that give context to the photo?

At the far left is a portrait of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. He is best known as a “fire-eater,” a radical Southern Democrat who supported slavery. Calhoun was, early in his career, an American nationalist who favored expansion and manifest destiny. He backed the War of 1812, served as secretary of war under James Monroe, and was vice president in the administrations of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

Calhoun broke with Jackson over the idea of “states rights” and returned home to South Carolina to serve as senator for the rest of his life. He supported nullification — an outgrowth of states rights that held states could nullify federal laws.

Calhoun spent the last months of his life arguing against the Compromise of 1850, which settled many elements of expansion in favor of anti-slavery factions. Calhoun said that, should the Compromise of 1850 pass, the South must secede from the union.

The middle portrait is of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. He was a stalwart advocate of abolition and civil rights. He is best known for getting caned on the floor of the Senate after he delivered his “Crime Against Kansas” speech. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, had allowed people in Kansas to vote on whether they wanted the territory to be a slave state or free state. The resulting influx of pro-slave and anti-slave supporters ignited a quasi-civil war in Kansas Territory, which Sumner decried in his 1856 speech.

Two days after the speech, as Sumner was sitting at his desk in the Senate, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks approached Sumner from behind and began beating him on the head with his gold-topped walking stick. He was angry that Sumner had implicated one of his relatives in the speech. Colleagues pulled Brooks off of Sumner, but not until the Massachusetts senator was knocked unconscious.

Massachusetts brought Sumner home and left his seat open for a time in mute protest to the attack; Brooks went back to South Carolina as a hero.

The third historical figure in the January 6 photo is a bust of President Richard Nixon. He had been Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president from 1953 to 1961. Nixon lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960, and in 1968 he was trying again to become president.

Nixon and his cronies devised a “Southern Strategy” to capture votes in the American South. After the Civil War, the South was concretely Democratic — after all, it had been Republicans who ended slavery and southern Whites had vowed to never vote Republican. But by 1968, the Democratic Party had dramatically shifted. It was the party of the New Deal under FDR, and now it was the party of Civil Rights under Lyndon Johnson. The Democratic Party had progressed without White southerners.

Nixon capitalized on southern disaffection and promised a policy of “law and order” to lure White southerners to the Republican side. Of course, “law and order” was understood to mean policies directed against young people and Blacks.

And that flag the invader his carrying — not only was it the Confederate battle flag, it was also the symbol of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party in 1948. The Dixiecrats were devoted to states rights and racial segregation. Thurmond, the party’s only presidential candidate, was a senator from, guess where, South Carolina!

I have no idea who decides the placement of artwork in the Capitol building. It’s insulting enough that, on a normal day, Sumner is flanked by two noted racists, Calhoun and Nixon.

How horrible to see the tableau finished off by a Confederate flag on the shoulder of a man taking part in a coup attempt to keep a racist in office.

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