May 30, 2024

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Civil rights leader Dizzy Betts and singer Johnny Cash replace Arkansas statues at the US Capitol

Civil rights leader Dizzy Betts and singer Johnny Cash replace Arkansas statues at the US Capitol

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — When Arkansas lawmakers decided five years ago to replace the statues representing the state in the U.S. Capitol, there was little objection to getting rid of the existing statues. The statues, which stood there for more than 100 years, were mysterious figures in the state's history.

“I remember making the tours to voters from Arkansas, to young people, and I would point out the two representatives in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol from Arkansas,” said former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who also served in Congress. “And they will say: We have never heard of them.”

Instead of two little-known figures from the 18th and 19th centuries, the country will soon be represented by “The Man in Black” and a woman who was instrumental in the fight to desegregate schools.

Officials plan to install statues of civil rights leader Daisy Betts this week and musician Johnny Cash later this year.

Bates, who headed the state NAACP, mentored black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in 1957. She is a well-known civil rights figure in Arkansas, where a downtown street in the capital, Little Rock, is named in her honor . The state also celebrates Daisy Betts Day on Presidents' Day.

Benjamin Victor, the Idaho sculptor chosen to create the Bates statue, said he began his work by studying her extensively, including reading her 1962 autobiography and visiting her Little Rock home and Central High School. He said he hopes the statue will help visitors to the U.S. Capitol learn more about her, too.

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“I hope this will inspire them first and foremost to study the life and legacy of Daisy Bates,” Victor said. “A big part of it is capturing her spirit and inspiring others to do the same and stand up for what's right.”

The 8-foot-tall bronze statue depicts Bates, who with her husband published the Arkansas State Press, walking with a newspaper in her arm. She holds a notebook and pen in one hand and wears an NAACP pin and a rose on her lapel.

Cash was born in Kingsland, a small town about 60 miles (100 km) south of Little Rock. He died in 2003 at the age of 71. His accomplishments include selling 90 million records worldwide of country, rock, blues, folk and gospel music. He has been one of the few artists to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Cash's 8-foot (2.4 m) statue depicts the singer with a guitar slung across his back and a Bible in hand. Little Rock sculptor Kevin Criss, who was chosen to create the statue, has sculpted other Arkansas music figures such as Al Green, Glen Campbell and Levon Helm.

He said Chris views Cash as a much-needed addition to the Capitol as a counterweight to the conflict in Congress.

“He walked the walk and lived what he believed in. That was the quality that really attracted me,” Chris said. “And that inner reflection was something I really wanted to try to bring out in this sculpture.”

The statues of Bates and Cash will replace statues of James B. Clark, a former governor and U.S. senator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Uriah Rose, a 19th-century lawyer. The statues have come under scrutiny, particularly due to racist comments made by Clark in which she called on the Democratic Party to maintain “white standards.”

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Sen. Bart Hester, a Republican who now serves as Senate president pro tempore, began calling for the statues to be replaced in 2018. Clark Tucker, Clark's great-great-grandson and a Democratic state senator, also called for the statue of his predecessors to be replaced on Calm Down.

“There was widespread recognition that it was time for change,” said Hutchinson, who signed the 2019 law requiring the statues of Bates and Cash to go up.

Choosing their replacements was the difficult part, as lawmakers presented competing ideas ranging from Walmart founder Sam Walton to a U.S. Marine killed in Afghanistan. After some debate, lawmakers eventually approved Bates and Cash.

Sen. David Wallace, who sponsored the legislation that will replace the previous sculptures, said he hopes the new statues will tell people more about the types of characters Arkansas has produced over the years.

“We wanted to represent the average person representing Arkansas,” Wallace said. “And I think with Dizzy Betts and with Johnny Cash, we've covered the spectrum in Arkansas. Just, they represent the general public of Arkansas.”

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Associated Press reporter Mike Pesoli contributed to this report.