In the wake of a protest against a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee that turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, the meaning and the future of other such monuments throughout the South is being debated. The fifty-six public spaces in the Commonwealth dedicated to the CSA are no exception, and MSU Professor Emeritus of History Dr. Bill Schell focuses on the statue of Robert E. Lee in Murray to offer some suggestions on a way forward.
Robert E. Lee Facing North: A brief History of Confederate Monuments
On Murray’s courthouse square, there is a monument erected in 1918 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor Calloway’s veterans of The Lost Cause. Its Doric columns support a granite canopy topped by a statue of General Robert E. Lee, and it is typical of thousands of Lost Cause monuments erected by UDC chapters throughout the South and Midwest. Some, such “Silent Sam” at my alma mater, the University of NC Chapel Hill, are famous master works. Most, like Calloway’s General Lee, and the Common Soldier statue erected by Weldon NC’s UDC (my grandmother was an officer), are not. They are products of the McNeel Marble Company, one of many companies that commercialized Lost Cause nostalgia in first decades of the 20th century, using modern ad campaigns to encourage UDC chapters to erect commemorative monuments throughout the south.
Confederate memorial building was part of the post-Reconstruction reconciliation between the North and South following Reconstruction. The North won the war, but the South won the peace. White Americans came to accept the Southern view that, while the war resulted in emancipation, the right of states to leave the union was the real issue, not slavery.
But while Confederate memorials and the attendant reshaping of history may have been necessary for reconciliation between Northern and Southern Whites, Black Americans saw those same memorials, obelisks and statues as legitimating slavery and oppression. Yet for decades they were tolerated, disappearing into the everyday, pushed aside by Black activists who were more concerned with civil rights and voting issues.
With Obama’s election, many Americans hoped race relations had turned a corner. But instead, Obama’s presidency radicalized the political right which committed itself to its failure. In 2013, shortly after Obama’s reelection, Black Lives Matter movement was spawned by George Zimmerman’s acquittal of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter organizers encouraged citizens to use cellphones to record encounters with the police and to post on social media sites. Soon police shootings of unarmed Blacks were showing up with alarming regularity. Yet even with unambiguous video evidence, police shooters were rarely tried and almost none were convicted until came an event that shocked even the most hardened of the “thing-are-ok-the-way-they-are” crowd.
In 2015 white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine worshipers in a shooting rampage at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church. He hoped to provoke a race war. Instead he provoked a backlash against racist terrorism. SC Governor Nikki Haley and Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott convinced state legislators to stopping flying the Confederate battle flag over the capital. But the Confederate monuments, protected by the state’s Heritage Act, remained. Activists responded by spray painting Black Lives Matter graffiti on Confederate monuments and demanded that they be removed from public places. Graffiti protest spread quickly. More monuments were vandalized. [In retaliation, an alt-right protestor spray painted an illiterate message on the Lincoln Memorial.] Southern cities—Louisville, New Orleans, Jacksonville City, Gainesville Florida and others—recognizing change to be inevitable tried to manage it rationally, with varying degrees of success.
Charlottesville’s decision to relocate its equestrian statue of Lee was met with demonstrations by white nationalists, Klansmen, and other alt-right militants, many with firearms, helmets and body armor. They were opposed by militant Antifa (short for anti-fascists) activists. Peaceful protest gave way to riots that climaxed when a neo-Nazi sped his Dodge Challenger into the crowd killing one and injuring 19.
But it is not my purpose to deal with obvious evil of political violence. It is rather more mundane. What are we to do with Kentucky’s 56 Confederate memorials? The case of the Jefferson Davis memorials is instructive of the necessary trade-offs between cultural-political symbolism and practicality. Should Jefferson Davis’s statue, now in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, be relocated or left in place? I feel, because it is practical and because it makes a necessary cultural-political statement, that the Davis statue should be removed and relocated. What about the 351-foot Davis obelisk in Fairview? Obviously, the obelisk cannot (or should not) be destroyed. But it might be repurposed as a Civil War Museum to present Kentucky’s Civil War history from multiple perspectives.
And not all memorials are stone. Jefferson Davis's birthday, June 3, is a legal public holiday in KY. Should it be? Probably not.
In the end, most of the decisions as to what to do about Confederate markers and memorials rests with each municipality. Lexington’s Mayor Jim Gray has decided to enforce the recommendation of the Urban County Arts Review Board to remove the John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge Memorials. But most of Kentucky’s Confederate Memorials, like the Lee statue-fountain on Murray’s courthouse square, are more humble. They might be removed, but should they be? Might their removal result in forgetting the past evils that they now represent? Might it not be better to provide a historical context so that local memorials speak against the system that their builders intended to commemorate?
Finally, it is obvious that the Black contribution to American and Kentucky history bust be memorialized. The opening last year of National Museum of African American History and Culture is a start, but what might be done locally? Perhaps where there are Confederate Memorials, Black history memorials might be raised to important but forgotten figures. Some work has begun. Mayfield raised a beautiful memorial to Elisha Winfield Green, a free Black Baptist minister of in antebellum Kentucky who preached in Paris and Mayfield and founded what is now Simmons College. But few know it exists and it is a notable exception.
Perhaps the good that comes of this controversy will not be the disestablishment of Confederate Memorials but rather their recontextualization in the context of a full, rich history of that includes the contributions of the Black women and men in building of our state and this country.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of WKMS or its staff.