A discussion over the fate of the statue of Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman dominated a Paducah City Commission meeting Tuesday night. A diverse audience of black and white individuals made up a well-attended meeting. Some weighed in on the issue of Confederate symbols during the public comment period and others wanted to hear what city officials had to say.
White males wearing Confederate symbols lined up in the front seats. Some were involved in a recent protest organized by veterans in support of the SCV. Black men and women sat behind them. Some were affiliated with the NAACP and church groups who wrote an open letter to the city about the Tilghman statue.
The Tilghman statue has been the subject of considerable debate in the city. Some say it should stay as a testament to history and heritage and for his contributions to the city. Others feel the statue, like other Confederate symbols, glorify slavery and represent racism.
A national debate over Confederate symbols sparked following incidents in Charleston, South Carolina and more recently in Charlottesville, Virginia. Dylann Roof murdered black worshippers at a church in Charleston and depicted himself on social media with Confederate symbols. In Charlottesville, white supremacist groups marched in support of a Robert E. Lee statue and an individual killed a woman after plowing into counterprotesters with a car. Cities across the nation, including Kentucky, are at various stages of moving or removing Confederate statues and monuments.
In Paducah, Mayor Brandi Harless thanked people in the room, and those watching on television, for having a "cordial" conversation about a "tough topic" in the community with regards to Confederate symbols. She called on people who had submitted an interest in speaking during a public comment period.
Bob Johnston said most young people didn't know the Tilghman statue existed until it became a recent focal-point. He said moving the statue to the Lloyd Tilghman House & Civil War Museum (as some have suggested) would create problems as it would go from a relatively inconspicuous location (in a neighborhood) to a more prominent location in the downtown area (at Kentucky and 7th). He also pointed out that the city would be giving up control of the statue to a private group.
Johnson said Tilghman was a product of his time and said the statue doesn't symbolize the ethos of the city but rather serves as a marker for his place in the community.
Vietnam veteran Michael Swinford said not carrying a Mississippi Flag in a local parade amounts to 'freedoms being taken away' and 'discrimination.' He was among veterans protesting outside of the Paducah City Hall last week the city's decision to disallow certain flags from being flown in the Veterans Day Parade, which he and others argue is targeted to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Swinford said while he has no opinion about the statue, he implored the Commission and others in the room to not see him or groups who defend Confederate symbols as 'racists, bigots, Nazis or Klan' members. "You can paint over the flood wall, you can burn our flags, you can keep us from marching in a parade, but you can't change our hearts," he said.
Sons of Confederate Veterans Kentucky Division Commander Jon Suttles said everyone needs heroes, whether they are Revolutionary soldiers or led the Southern states. He said monuments are erected to honor heroes and 'tell history.' He suggested instead of taking down statues to erect more "to commemorate the brave black and white heroes in this community's past, such as the one erected for Clarence 'Big House' Gaines." (Gaines was a famed college basketball coach from Paducah and a monument was recently erected in the city).
Suttles added that the SCV is not racist and has black membership with Confederate ancestry. He said "the worst enemy" of the SCV is the KKK. "All who fly Confederate flags and cherish monuments are not racist," he said.
Craig Cain is the captain of the SCV mechanized calvary. He said one can't pick which parts of history to remember, for good or bad. Referencing a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., he said, "We do not make history, history makes us."
Cain acknowledged that Confederate flags and monuments don't represent heritage for everyone, "but they do to us," and asked why those who didn't like them were intolerant. He then took aim at the NAACP, who he said has "preached hate since the 90s" as a means of recruitment.
He said Dylann Roof was an "insane murderer" and said what he did was a tragedy. "The Sons of Confederate Veterans and many of our Southern heritage groups were not involved in the Dylann Roof incident or Charlottesville, but you're requiring us to pay the penalty to other groups that we despise as much as you do," he said - directed to the NAACP.
Defending Tilghman, Cain said he was a "well-loved soldier who gave his life for his country and the soldiers serving under him." He said moving the statue would just anger citizens. If it were moved and a plaque was put in its place, the SCV would not agree to any statement that "insults Tilghman's memory." While he'd have no objection to a plaque that lists the names of Tilghman's five slaves (as suggested in an open letter by African American groups in the city to the city commissioners), but said it's illogical to remove a statue because it's a reminder of slavery only to be replaced by a plaque or monument that "reminds them of slavery."
Cain said, "Slavery was horrible and white supremacy has been horrible." He said people should learn to identify an enemy and said that is not a statue, monument or flag. He concluded by saying that hatred is present in both white and black people and will continue until people start treating each other as brothers and sisters.
Haydon "Corky" Bloodworth lives near the Tilghman statue and noted an effort in the past to move it, by request of the Tilghman House museum, but the commission then decided not to move it. He noted other Confederate symbols in the surrounding neighborhood (a statue in a cemetery and a tourism marker for a Jefferson Davis highway.)
"This is not an issue to fight about. This is an issue to talk about," he said and suggested putting the statue on a ballot for people to vote on the issue.
Speaking in opposition to the statue, Dawn Smith said "Confederate monuments and flags don't honor the nation's history but attempt to rewrite it," noting a Jim Crow-era push to build statues around the country.
Smith said the statues do not symbolize heritage, but serve as "a symbol of hate" and to say otherwise is 'ahistorical.' She said campaigns to remove the statues aren't recent and existed in the 1930s, too, in early 20th Century civil rights efforts. She said groups like Black Lives Matter are misunderstood.
She said, as an African American person in Paducah, she has "never felt welcome here" and urged the City to "make the right decision."
"I believe in freedom of speech, but it seems that often others people's freedom of speech often comes at my freedom of right to life and right to safety," she said.
Turning back to the Commissioners, Sarah Stewart Holland said the idea that if someone belongs to the Sons of Confederate Veterans or Black Lives Matter then they are "somehow the enemy" is a "troubling trend." She said while she didn't agree with Commissioner Richard Abraham's statements (he said, among other things, that removing statues won't fix issues and that efforts amount to a political "flavor of the day"), she felt he was a dedicated public servant.
She said of those who say, "I am not a racist" that racism is a system of oppression, not just the action of individuals. She said the way history is talked about changes over time. With regards to the "whataboutism" comparing Confederate figures to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, she said it's a matter of "principal legacy," of which Tilghman's is his service to the Confederacy. She notes that people, too, are having conversations about the legacies of the founding fathers. She says there's space for these conversations.
"We're not ever going to agree on what they mean," she said of Confederate symbols, and adds that Democracy is about "when your right to assemble bumps up against my right to feel safe."
Commissioner Abraham said the City of Paducah has been "loving and caring to me personally" and noted other charitable efforts like the Empty Bowls Project and the Oscar Cross Boys and Girls Club. He said the challenge facing the community is: "Are we going to be manipulated by a conversation - by activities going on in other communities? Or are the people of this community - black, white, Hispanic - across the board going to say 'you know what, we're going to do what we do. And we're going to set the example for other places.'"
Commissioner Allan Rhodes quoted this from an NPR Code Switch article:
"Monuments don't mean things on their own. They mean things because we make them mean things. So this Robert E. Lee statue, which I suspect most Charlottesvillians would have walked past and ignored as well, has taken on a new valence. And I think that's an important reminder. Monuments are not static things that have a single narrative behind them. Monuments are things that we create. Monuments are objects whose meaning and significance we create daily."
Commissioner Sandra Wilson said, "everything's been said" on this subject.
Mayor Brandi Harless said it "takes guts" to have hard conversations and to admit when things are wrong and accept when things are right.
She said she wants to make sure the city is 'moving forward' and concluded the discussion by encouraging people to ask themselves what racism looks like in 2017. She said it looks like poverty, lack of job opportunities and other 'real issues.' She asked people to understand racism in today's world and wants that conversation to continue in the city of Paducah.