Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said he “absolutely” disagrees with removing Confederate symbols and monuments from government property, calling it the “sanitization of history.”
“If we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of our past, then we better teach it to our young people,” Bevin told WVHU radio . “It better be known. It doesn’t have to be celebrated, as in that this was something we did and we should do again.” He suggested that it’s the wrong approach “to pretend it didn’t happen, to remove from society — because where do you draw the line?”
Bevin’s comments came as state and local government leaders across the country consider removing Confederate symbols after violent protests at a white supremacist rally Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., where three people died.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray asked the city council Tuesday to take the first step toward removing two Confederate statues from a prominent downtown location, but Bevin said removing such symbols would be “dangerous” because it would encourage people to “pretend it didn’t happen.”
In 2015, when Bevin was the Republican nominee for governor, he said it would be appropriate for state officials to remove a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Capitol Rotunda. At the time, Bevin’s comments came less than a week after the racially motivated killings of nine people at a South Carolina church.
“It is important never to forget our history, but parts of our history are more appropriately displayed in museums, not on government property,” Bevin said at the time.
On Tuesday, Bevin was asked several times by reporters whether the Davis statue should be moved elsewhere, as the state NAACP has requested, but he didn’t offer a specific response.
When first asked about the statue, Bevin said, “Hatred and bigotry has no place whatsoever in Kentucky.”
Reminded of his comments two years ago, Bevin responded: “What I’m saying today is what I believe, and that it is a dangerous precedent — I don’t need to repeat myself in this respect — but there is no home for bigotry or hatred in Kentucky.”
He later said that the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission decides the fate of statues in the Capitol. The panel voted 7-2 two years ago to keep the Davis statue and decided to produce educational materials about it and the four other statues in the Rotunda. It didn’t begin work on the education materials until last month.
The Kentucky Democratic Party accused Bevin of flip-flopping on the issue. The party said in a written statement that it supports “the decision to remove any Confederate statues on government property.”
“We are not sanitizing history,” party spokesman Brad Bowman said. “We are standing against racism, hate and bigotry. This issue rises above politics. We owe that to every Kentuckian.”
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s press secretary, Robert Steurer, said Monday that McConnell holds to his 2015 statement that the Davis statue shouldn’t be in the Kentucky Capitol.
A plaque on Davis’ statue identifies him as a “patriot — hero — statesman.” The Tennessee marble likeness, unveiled in 1936, was erected by the state with the help of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Bevin told WVHU radio that what happened in Charlottesville was “disgusting” and “heartbreaking,” but that local officials could have handled it better.
“The fact that people were allowed to clash with one another as they were in Virginia, that people were encouraged to come in and counter-protest and be just as violent and angry as the hateful people that came in the first place, people knew what was going to happen,” Bevin said.
He said a similar white supremacist rally in Eastern Kentucky in April didn’t erupt in violence. Bevin said the state didn’t encourage or discourage counter-protests, and “we made sure that everybody was kept separate.”
Herald-Leader reporter Jack Brammer and Associated Press reporter Adam Beam contributed to this story.