The debate over historical monuments depicting slave owners has arrived in Springfield.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan announced Thursday that he wants to remove a portrait and two statues from the Illinois state capitol.
Madigan wrote that he recently learned of the “disturbing past” of Stephen Douglas, the former Illinois U.S. senator who famously debated Abraham Lincoln. He writes in a statement that after reading the book All the Powers of Earth, he asked staff to research whether Douglas owned slaves in Mississippi. A portrait of Douglas currently hangs in the chambers of the Illinois House of Representatives, and a statue of the Democratic senator also stands on the capitol grounds.
Madigan intends to cover the portrait until House members vote later this year on whether to remove it. He suggests replacing the Douglas portrait with one of President Barack Obama, who was an Illinois state senator.
“Memorializing people and a time that allowed slavery and fostered bigotry and oppression has no place in the Illinois House, where the work of all Illinoisans is conducted. We can only move forward in creating a more just world when these symbols of hate are removed from our everyday lives,” Madigan wrote in a statement.
Across the country, statues that depict historical figures from the Confederacy or famous figures who have owned slaves have been coming down, either taken down by local governments or toppled by protesters.
But President Donald Trump has objected to the movement, saying he would like to “protect our monuments” and has threatened to have federal law enforcement arrest people who topple them.
In Illinois, the speaker also suggests removing an eight-foot tall statue of former Illinois Lt. Gov. Pierre Menard standing over a Native American on the grounds of the capitol in Springfield. Menard, who also has a namesake county and correctional center in Illinois, owned slaves.
Madigan wants a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., which is currently across the street from the capitol, moved to “a location of more prominence and honor.”
“Of course, removing these images does not erase our history, but it is one step in acknowledging the suffering of so many and committing to creating a better Illinois for everyone,” Madigan said.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.