In 2017, a statue of the late Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled on the frontage of the Georgia Capitol.
The 8-foot bronze statue of the civil rights leader stands on a pedestal with “MLK” engraved in gold lettering. His pose is inspired by a photograph of King walking out of an Alabama courthouse during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.
King’s statue is the latest installment to the Capitol’s statue collection. And it looks like it will remain so. Efforts to add another famous Georgia native to the grounds appear to have stalled for the second year in a row.
A Republican proposal to erect a stone statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas inside the Capitol or on its grounds has again run into heated opposition.
GOP supporters of the bill called Thomas’ life story a “Georgia story.” Despite all the odds stacked against him, Thomas rose from poverty in coastal Georgia to become a justice on the highest court of the land, they said.
“Future generations of Georgians can learn valuable lessons from his legacy and gain inspiration and belief that their lofty dreams are attainable too in America, regardless of the circumstances in which they’re born,” said state Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican who is close with Thomas’ family.
But Democratic lawmakers, many of them Black, disagreed.
They pointed to Thomas’ controversial rulings on abortion and civil rights, saying they have adversely impacted his fellow members of the Black community. Democratic state Sen. James Marrow, who represents Savannah, said Thomas’ rulings have not reflected the concerns of Black Georgians, therefore they do not celebrate him.
“Now, [if] Justice Thomas decides to reverse course and start being the justice for the people and not the special interest, then he might be able to restore that legacy in our community,” Marrow said.
Under Senate Bill 69, the Thomas monument would be funded by private donations. It would be “designed, procured and placed by the Capitol Arts Commission.” A monument committee composed of state lawmakers would have the final approval.
The measure passed the Senate on Feb. 18 by a 32-20 vote. As the 2023 legislative session heads into its final days, it still awaits a House committee hearing.
Born and raised in a tiny neighborhood just outside of Savannah called Pin Point, Thomas, now 74, was appointed to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. He succeeded Thurgood Marshall to become the court’s second Black justice. Today he is its longest-serving member.
But his confirmation hearing was overshadowed by claims from lawyer Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her. Thomas has recently faced fresh scrutiny because his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas supported former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
This isn’t the only time attempts to honor Thomas have been controversial, even in his hometown of Savannah.
In 2001, the Live Oak Public Libraries and Foundation raised money to renovate and expand the Carnegie library in Pin Point. Thomas spent much of his childhood reading at the previously segregated library.
According to Savannah Morning News, Texas businessman Harlan Crow, approached the foundation and offered $150,000 to complete the renovations if they named the library after Thomas, a longtime friend.
Black members from the Savannah-Chatham County library board opposed Crow’s proposal. One library board member, Robert Brooks, called on community and church groups to protest the proposition.
“Clarence Thomas has never cared anything about black folks and he made that very clear to us,” Brooks said in a Savannah Morning News article. “I call him Judas because he sold his people out.”
The library foundation presented another proposal to Crow. His donation would go toward the construction of a new wing at Carnegie, which would be named after Thomas. Crow accepted.
Last year, students at The Savannah College of Art and Design filed a petition to replace the name of a building dedicated to Thomas. In 2010, SCAD named The Clarence Thomas Center for Historical Preservation in honor of Thomas. The building was formerly an orphanage and convent for Missionary Sisters of the Franciscan order where Thomas was an altar boy as a child.
Griffin Hansen, a student studying amination, started the petition after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
In a concurring opinion, Thomas suggested the court should reconsider other precedents, including one which legalized same-sex marriage.
“For the tuition of the student body to support the maintenance and upkeep of a building named after a man who actively tries to rob the student body of their fundamental rights is unacceptable,” Hansen stated in the petition, which gathered more than 2,000 signatures.
The university removed the sign bearing Thomas’ name from the building and may rename it.
“I understand that Justice Thomas is an important part of Savannah’s culture and history,” Hansen said, “but I also think that it’s important to realize that he doesn’t reflect the values of people who go to the school that bears his name.”
A spokesperson from the university did not respond immediately to emails requesting comment.
But Republicans aren’t giving up, saying Thomas has dedicated his life to public service.
“Justice Thomas has served all of America and all of Georgia — no matter your race, your gender, your community or your culture,” state Sen. Jason Anavitarte said on the Senate floor.