After a domestic terrorist plowed his car into counter-protestors of Neo-Nazi and KKK members rallying in Charlottesville, Va., Lexington officials voted unanimously to remove two Confederate statues from the old courthouse lawn.
We hear howls of protest; but in the wake of a tragedy with Kentucky roots, it’s time for some soul searching.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Kentucky has 41 Confederate monuments in public places. There are a total of 718 Confederate monuments scattered throughout the country. At a time when racial healing is desperately needed, we should ask what is hindering reconciliation? Is there a chance that monuments in prominent public places honoring the Confederacy are inconsistent with reconciliation?
Last year, I participated in a National Day of Prayer event in Caldwell County. Elected officials, pastors and residents gathered on the courthouse steps. Just a stone’s throw from us stood an imposing statue of a Confederate soldier. To me, it was an expression of the area’s local history as many of their native sons fought and died for the Lost Cause.
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But how was it viewed by the black ladies on the platform next to me?
If public monuments tell a story about what society values, then what is the narrative of communities whose courthouse grounds only consist of Confederate monuments? Numerous historical events and figures have reshaped our communities since the end of the Civil War. Desegregation of public schools, dismantling Jim Crow laws, and the civil rights movement — all have worked toward restoring the idea that human dignity isn’t dependent upon on skin color.
If Confederate monuments are to stay on courthouse grounds, then I propose placing alongside them monuments of those whose lives have written more recent chapters in Kentucky’s history of human advances and race relations.
Edward Claybrook (1821-1896) of Owensboro won a pivotal court battle for equal funding for black schools. Hopkinsville native Ted Poston (1906-1974) broke the color barrier for black journalists. The Rev. William Jones Sr. (1907-1968) pastored the historic Pleasant Green Baptist Church which was the cradle of the civil rights movement in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region.
Why not erect statues of these pioneers on their native community’s courthouse grounds?
There will be protests that courthouse lawns are sacred grounds that shouldn’t be reconfigured. Some will say this is whitewashing history. We need to remember that there is a danger of permitting the present to be held captive to bad ideas of the past — ideas that we should never forget, but ones that don’t singularly deserve places of honor in the context of places representing the rule of law where justice is pursued.
This is not to suggest that Confederate monuments be papered over as the University of Kentucky similarly did in 2015 when it temporarily covered a mural depicting slaves working on a tobacco farm. The warts and ugliness of our history shouldn’t be hidden, but rather should be open for all to see in order to serve as constant reminders of our mistakes.
But if we are as serious about our recent history as we are about our more distant history, and if we are serious about healing the racial wounds inflicted by unjust laws and institutions, then shouldn’t steps toward healing be placed above singular symbols that many consider hurtful and divisive?
If the racists are determined to rally in Charlottesville to preserve Lee’s monument, then why not erect alongside it statues of George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr.?
If the racists must rally, let them rally under the glances of men and women whose stories of undaunted courage proclaim to the world that small-minded bigotry cannot withstand the fortitude committed to advancing human dignity and justice for all.
Richard Nelson of Cadiz is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a Kentucky-based nonpartisan public policy organization.