MADISON – Three Wisconsin Republicans took action this week to block efforts to take down Confederate monuments and to honor Juneteenth at a time when thousands of people are protesting long-standing racial disparities in the state.
U.S. Reps. Tom Tiffany and Glenn Grothman on Wednesday voted against removing Confederate monuments in the U.S. Capitol while U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson blocked an effort to add a federal holiday honoring Juneteenth, citing billions in costs to taxpayers.
Grothman said he voted against the removal of Confederate statues because one of a slavery sympathizer would be replaced with a bust of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. He said he opposed the idea because of the former Supreme Court justice’s views on abortion.
“If the authors of this bill wanted more bipartisan support, they should not have requested a bust of such an ardent abortion activist,” Grothman said in a statement.
Grothman and Tiffany were two of 113 Republicans to oppose a measure proposed by Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland that would remove five statues of individuals who supported slavery or served for the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.
More than 91,000 Wisconsin soldiers fought against the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War at a time when the state population was about 775,000. More than 12,000 Wisconsinites died during the yearslong battle.
The House bill proposes to replace a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in a decision that deemed Black slaves were not citizens, with a likeness of Marshall.
Marshall was the first Black Supreme Court justice who had also successfully sued to desegregate schools in the 1950s, resulting in the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Tiffany said he voted against the bill to avoid editing U.S. history.
“Any country that erases its history is doomed to repeat it. I want to make sure that my children never forget our ancestors’ struggle to end slavery and these statues are a part of that story,” Tiffany said in a statement.
Tiffany said the removal of such statues should continue to be carried out at the state level, where officials decide which person to honor by statue in the U.S. Capitol.
At the time of the Civil War, Wisconsin’s Republican governor — Alexander Randall — supplied several regiments of army volunteers, beyond what the federal government had requested, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“While some fought to end slavery, others simply wanted to preserve America’s experiment in democracy,” state historians wrote in an essay on Wisconsin’s involvement in the war.
Recruits were trained in Madison, Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Racine. Camp Randall, now the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s football stadium, housed Confederate prisoners of war.
Grothman said he believes the Confederate statues are inappropriate but that it was Marshall’s efforts to preserve access to abortion that pushed him to vote against the measure.
“Surely Georgia and the other states who have statues in the Capitol commemorating individuals associated with the Confederacy have more distinguished individuals who can represent their state,” he said.
Marshall sided with the majority in the landmark Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions, but did not write the majority opinion in the case.
Grothman did not mention Marshall’s background in racial desegregation efforts in his statement. A spokesman did not respond to questions about how Grothman views the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education.
“Because Marshall was instrumental in pushing the opinion of the court in an extreme direction, I do not believe that he, one of our country’s biggest pro-abortion figures who helped enable the silencing of countless lives, should be rewarded with a bust in the U.S. Capitol,” Grothman said.
Grothman has been criticized for his vote by Democrats, who say the monuments honor racists.
He recently came under fire after he claimed there’s not enough discussion about white victims of police shootings and too much talk about Black Americans killed by police.
Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, who voted in favor of removing the statues, suggested the vote should have been unanimous.
“Just want it to be known that 113 Republicans just voted to keep Confederate monuments in the Capitol. They failed though, just like the Confederacy,” he tweeted.
Wisconsin GOP Reps. Mike Gallagher, Bryan Steil and Democratic Reps. Ron Kind and Gwen Moore also voted in favor of removing the statues. Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, whose wife recently died, did not cast a vote.
Steil said his vote removed “confederates and white supremacists” from the U.S. Capitol.
“This bill removes statues like Charles Brantley Aycock, a Democrat white supremacist who led the only coup d’état in U.S. history,” he said in a statement. “Our nation should honor people like Colonel Hans Christian Heg, who fought to end slavery and injustice in this country, not those who took arms against their country, for example.”
Steil is seeking to rename a post office in Muskego after Heg, whose likeness was torn down from its pedestal in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol during protests and riots in June.
Johnson blocks Juneteenth holiday
Johnson on Wednesday also blocked an effort to add a federal holiday honoring Juneteenth, saying it would cost taxpayers about $6 billion over a decade.
“I am happy to celebrate Juneteenth. I think we should celebrate the fact that we did remove an ‘original sin’ by emancipating slaves,” he said in a statement. “I simply don’t believe we should make American taxpayers in the private sector pony up $600 million a year, $6 billion over 10 years, to give federal workers, who already are paid quite generously and have quite a few days off, one more paid day off.”
Johnson’s action came weeks after he backed off a proposal to replace Columbus Day as a federal holiday with a day off to honor Juneteenth. He abandoned the idea after being accused by conservatives of denigrating Christopher Columbus.
Honoring Columbus and Confederate officials has come under fresh scrutiny following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer — sparking protests and riots across the country over how state and national officials recognize the country’s history and whether historical figures who mistreated and abused people of color should continue to be honored.
Earlier this month, Johnson suggested amending a Juneteenth bill by taking away Columbus Day’s federal holiday status to keep costs down.
Days later, Johnson retracted the amendment, proposing instead to “reduce the number of paid leave days federal employees receive.”
Allison Garfield of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.