They are the proxy for our two dozen and ten states: one hundred dead lights depicted in marble or bronze statues, two from each state, like the famous Noah’s Ark.
They are posted, standing, or sitting throughout the U.S. Capitol building, away from the fighting that can result in some of them being evicted from the premises and carted to an obscure camp.
Right now California is warming up for a fight over who should be its luminaries. This is not trivial; Choice becomes an official measure of who we are and what we think California is or should be.
These statues are a bourgeois version of the commitment of an all-star team of our best citizens and heroes. And who does California have in the game? Ronald Reagan, president of Gipper, and Junipero Serra, Catholic saint and founder of the California mission system, who too often cost Native Americans their land, indigenous practices and their lives in search of the salvation of their souls.
Last year, a Serra statue on Olvera Street in Los Angeles was demolished by activists, roped like a rodeo calf, and torn from a pedestal it had stood on since 1932. It was pretty clear at the time that the Serra statue was more than 2,000 miles away in Washington, DC, could also be headed for a fall.
We get used to our heroic monuments spinning in and out of favor, wondering if our statues should be – or possibly can be – all-time greats? Or just the greats of their time?
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Poor Thomas Starr King. In 1931, he and Serra became California’s first two Capitol statues. He, too, was a man of God, a universalist minister who came to California in 1860 when it was at the heart of the story, viciously torn in its sympathies – Lincoln won the state in 1860 with just 700 votes, having blown his worldly goods with the secessionists it could affect the outcome of the civil war.
King was a short man, six feet tall, but “even though I weigh only 120 pounds,” he promised, “when I’m crazy I weigh a ton.” He spent the four years of his life stumbling around California to keep the state in the Union and advocating for the rights of Chinese and black Americans. Over the summer, Harvard magazine quoted an unnamed black historian as saying that King was “perhaps the only truly anti-racist white Californian of his time.” His convincing speech won ten or twenty thousand people.
When he died in 1864, the year the Washington Hall of Fame began, California declared three days of mourning. In a state with fewer than half a million people, 20,000 of them attended his funeral. “Keep my memory green,” he had whispered on his deathbed. A summit in Yosemite bears his name. Its Capitol statue, which was brought to market in 2006 by the state legislature for the benefit of a bronze Ronald Reagan, stands today in Sacramento. But who remembers him now? Should every “eternal statue” have an expiration date?
The statue of Thomas Starr King, seen in the US Capitol in 2006, was relocated to Sacramento when the effigy of former President Reagan King took place.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
Serra partially outlived King because he was canonized in 2015, and which politician wanted to take on this divine mojo? But if Serra’s statue disappears – a more likely “when” than “if” – who will be on that empty pedestal in DC? King again? If not, then whose?
California is home to Nobel Prize winners and billionaire creators and artists of all stripes. We are not lacking in size. But the subject of a Capitol statue must meet two criteria: be dead and have the blessings of the legislature and the governor.
In 1931, a Van Nuys woman, described as a “housewife” and descendant of the stately Sepulveda family, was given the honor of stirring up state women’s clubs and notables in support of the Serra and King statues, The Times reported “After going through the benefits”. a score or more historical names. ”Neither of these names was enticing and frustrating.
Who were they How would you rate today? How many August bronze figures have no clay feet? Whose character can stand the test of the present and be defended for the future?
Someone – maybe a Frenchman – invented the phrase we know as “Nobody is a hero to his valet,” which means that no human greatness can stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps no man (or woman) can be a hero in history forever.
Still, to this day, some men whose failures, which you believe we can all agree on, find favor to this day. In 1931, the year the Serra and King statues took their place in the U.S. Capitol, the statue of a man was also charged but never tried in high treason: Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation. 1931 was 70 years after Davis dramatically resigned his Senate seat when his state withdrew from the Union, and also the year Mississippi returned him in bronze as one of his two iconic Capitol figures, likening him to Abraham Lincoln. No modern dismay has yet displaced it.
Since 2000, states have been allowed to exchange their statues, which has ousted Reagan King. The statues of nine Native Americans are, or soon to be, including Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I and Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers, who was born in Cherokee Territory. There are more former Confederate statues than there are African American statues.
So who should it be, California? Who can stand there for eternity and also withstand them? Biddy Mason, born into slavery and one of the richest, most philanthropic women in LA? Sally Ride, the first American woman in space? Isadora Duncan, an artist and feminist who is decades ahead of her time? Cesar Chavez, Co-Founder, with Dolores Huerta of the groundbreaking United Farm Workers union?
John Muir, who would have been an eye-catcher as a pioneering environmentalist and naturalist, lost his chance because, as the Sierra Club he founded, “was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement”.
Our bank is deep. I’ve heard calls for Kobe Bryant, Joe DiMaggio, Steve Jobs, Ray Kroc, Earl Warren, and Rabbi Edgar Magnin.
I have always preferred Toypurina, the Tongva medic who helped lead an uprising against the San Gabriel Mission, and explained why: “I am angry with the padres and everyone else on the mission for living here on my home soil because I entered the land of my ancestors and plundered our tribal areas. “
If Serra gets the hook, we shouldn’t put his successor to a public vote. If you think the 2003 recall election, with its 135 candidates, was electoral frenzy, imagine the chaos that accompanied that election.
That single question would drown out any serious, bread-and-butter, dollar-and-dime issues on the ballot. Living candidates for office would have to line up with dead candidates for sculpture. It’s entirely possible that the Californians will vote for Mickey Mouse or Marilyn Monroe.
When I think about it …
Would it even fit in the Capitol?
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)