The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning proved yet again its value by hosting a forum on the presence of the John Hunt Morgan and John Breckinridge statues on the front lawn of the old courthouse.
Let us be clear, though, about what these pieces of public art represent. They are memorials to honor two generals in the army of an 11-state confederacy, an insurgency against the United States that Kentucky did not join until after the rebels surrendered in 1865.
These statues are no different in purpose than the Lincoln or Washington memorials in Washington or the John Sherman Cooper statue in Somerset. They all have been chosen as potent symbols of what we honor and value in our society.
So, for me, a seventh-generation Kentuckian of English stock whose great-great-grandfather and two uncles lie forever in Pike County under headstones documenting their service in the 39th Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Infantry, a loyal part of the United States Army who fought against Morgan in Cynthiana, these Confederate memorials are insulting.
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It is insulting that my hometown would tolerate honoring men who fought to be free to live in a society and economy based on a plantation system dependent on slave labor. As a Christian, I am insulted that we would honor men who sought to perpetuate such a vile institution — an evil not just of their time but which continues to corrode our country today.
Mayor Jim Gray announced that, per city ordinance, he was referring the issue of appropriate public art to the Art Review Board which, presumably, will decide whether the statues stay or go. And if they stay, who of the long list of great Lexington African-Americans will stand with them.
This misses the point by a very long shot.
The question is not what is appropriate public art. This was not the question an overflow crowd at Carnegie came to debate or opine about. It was a very different question: whether to allow these statues to represent our identity.
That is not a question of art but of soul. The Urban County Council must act now, via its emergency process, to pass a resolution that empowers the mayor to move these memorials without the review board's process.
Every day that goes by is one our brothers and sisters of color must tolerate hate speech; one more they live in a community that celebrates a mythical past that obscures the reality of antebellum Lexington; one more that we all are forced to be judged as a community that accommodates the principles the Confederacy fought and killed to preserve.
We should have no qualms with folks who wish to erect rebel flags on their lawn or paste them on a car window, or place Sambo jockeys on their front porch, or honor their Confederate ancestry.
In a free society, that is their right. Nor should we oppose the placement of Confederate relics in publicly funded museums. We must know all of our history. Just as Germany maintains Auschwitz but forbids the public display of Nazi symbols, so should we remember our unvarnished history, lest we forget.
This is not about white-washing. What to do with these statutes now is what we choose as totems of what we stand for and how we present ourselves to the world.
South Carolina and Alabama responded to the racially motivated hate murders in Charleston by taking down the Confederate flag from public spaces.
Texas fought a battle in the Supreme Court to keep rebel flags off license plates. Scales are falling off Southern politicians' eyes daily.
What is the response in Lexington? Will it be a bureaucratic process which debates public art? Or, will we have the courage to embrace what is right?
At the forum, a young African-American man spoke that truth. He asked all of us the question recently spray-painted on Morgan's pedestal: In Lexington, do black lives matter?
For God's sake, for our sake, for our children's sake, for our African-American neighbors' sake, let all of us knock down those memorials now.