NC legislators want Billy Graham statue in US Capitol

State legislators want to put a statue of evangelist Billy Graham in the U.S. Capitol building, replacing former Gov. Charles B. Aycock as one of two North Carolinians memorialized there.

Aycock, who served from 1901 to 1905, has come under fire recently for his white supremacist views. In February, East Carolina University stripped his name from a dormitory, and the N.C. Democratic Party took his name off an annual fundraising dinner in 2011.

In Washington, Aycock has represented North Carolina in the National Statuary Hall Collection since 1932. The state’s other contribution there is a statue of Zebulon Vance, who was a Confederate officer, governor and U.S. senator.

Republican-sponsored bills in the state House and Senate call for putting a Graham statue in Aycock’s place, describing him as someone who “continues to inspire the world with his good works.”

“There was a thought that Gov. Aycock may not be one of the best representatives of North Carolina,” said Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican who sponsored the House bill. “As times change, we need to make sure that the people that represent North Carolina do so with our best foot forward.”

Jeter says he filed House Bill 540 following a request from U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. Jeter says Graham’s legacy of ministry and charitable work reflects well on the state.

“To me, he was the best representative of North Carolina,” he said. “He is by far the least polarizing of all the people who are worthy of consideration.”

A companion bill was filed in the Senate by Sen. Dan Soucek, a Boone Republican who has worked for Samaritan’s Purse, a charity led by Graham’s son Franklin.

Not everyone, however, is eager to see Aycock removed from his Capitol pedestal. Rep. John Bell’s district includes the Aycock Birthplace Historic Site in Wayne County, and he said he’s been “disappointed” to see attacks on the governor’s legacy.

“He did a lot to enhance education,” said Bell, a Goldsboro Republican, pointing to the 1,100 public schools constructed during Aycock’s term. “I would like for him to be remembered for his legacy doing that.”

Bell said he hasn’t yet taken a position on the Graham proposal but stressed that he “loves what Billy Graham stands for.”

Jim Aycock, the great-grandson of Aycock’s brother, said critics have made false attacks on the governor. Some accounts have tied Charles Aycock to race riots and lynchings, which Jim Aycock said is wrong.

“If he were alive today, he would have lot of active libel cases,” Aycock said, adding that the proposed Statuary Hall change is “the latest salvo in a years-long series of attacks.”

Charles Aycock’s role as a white supremacist, however, isn’t in dispute: A 1912 biography said he “believed in the right of the white man to rule as profoundly as he believed in God.”

‘Start the ball rolling’

Each state has two statues in the Capitol building, and the federal government allows legislatures and governors to petition for a change.

North Carolina has never tried to switch statues, although other states have successfully made a swap in recent years.

California installed a statue of President Ronald Reagan in 2009, replacing Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, who state legislators thought was too obscure. In 2011, Michigan replaced a 98-year-old statue of Detroit mayor Zachariah Chandler with a new one depicting President Gerald Ford.

New statues have to be built to certain specifications and be approved by the Joint Committee on the Library, a panel of 10 members of Congress. States can’t submit statues of living people, so Graham, 96, wouldn’t be displayed until after his death.

“We’re certainly not trying to hasten anything,” Jeter said. “We hope Rev. Graham lives a long time. But we can get the authorizing language, and more importantly get the fundraising started.”

If the bill passes and is signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, legislators would form a committee to hire a sculptor and oversee the commission of the statue. Jeter says the effort would be funded by private donations, likely made through the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

“We don’t intend to have the state pay for this,” he said. “We wanted to start the ball rolling, knowing that the process is years long. When the time comes, we’ll be prepared.”