Fayette County

White nationalist groups plan rally in Lexington to oppose moving statues

Matthew Heimbach, head of the Traditionalists Worker Party, center, speaks during a white nationalist rally in downtown Pikeville, Ky., Saturday, April 29, 2017.
Matthew Heimbach, head of the Traditionalists Worker Party, center, speaks during a white nationalist rally in downtown Pikeville, Ky., Saturday, April 29, 2017. aslitz@herald-leader.com

White nationalists are planning a rally in Lexington to oppose the planned removal of two Confederate statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse, and they’re considering a lawsuit aimed at blocking the move, a leader in the movement said Tuesday.

Matthew Heimbach, chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, said his group is discussing plans for the rally with others allied under an umbrella organization called the Nationalist Front.

Heimbach said people in the Lexington area asked his group to get involved. The group has members in Kentucky and plans to try to recruit more, he said.

No date has been chosen, but the goal is to have the event “sooner rather than later,” Heimbach said.

Heimbach said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray’s push to move the statues is part of a larger effort in the United States and elsewhere to erase white heritage, culture and identity.

“When you’re tearing down the statues, that is a clear attempt to replace and erase us,” he said, referring to white people. “This is an attack on us.”

The effort is motivated by political correctness and a “radical multicultural agenda,” Heimbach said.

Gray announced his plan to move the statues Saturday, hours after a deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va., between white nationalists and counter-protesters over plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to take the first step toward moving the statues from Main Street to a location that is still to be determined. Gray had previously proposed moving them to an area for war memorials in Veterans Park, but backed away from that plan Tuesday.

“Everyone needs to understand that we are planning to relocate the statues, not destroy them,” Gray said in a statement Tuesday. “We want to establish an opportunity to learn our authentic history so history will not repeat itself.”

Gray said Sunday that the statues of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, the last secretary of war for the states that seceded from the Union, stand on the same ground that once was one of the largest slave markets in the South.

“It’s just not right for us to continue to honor these Confederate men who fought to preserve slavery on the same ground that men, women and even children were once sold into a life of slavery,” he said.

Heimbach, though, said statues of Confederate leaders — he called them “statues of heroes” — are important symbols because they can inspire.

That’s why some people want them gone: because of the concern that they could help light a fire under a new generation of white nationalists, Heimbach said.

That kind of ideology is repugnant to many people, but it has gained traction under President Donald Trump among white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

White supremacists spoke openly of their support for Trump after he initially failed to single out their groups for condemnation after the deadly clash in Charlottesville. Trump later specifically condemned the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists and other hate groups, saying they “are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Dozens of people were hurt at the rally in clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and more than a dozen people were injured when a man who had marched with the white supremacists allegedly drove his car into a group of protestors.

Gray’s decision to push for moving the statues was applauded by hundreds who attended a Monday night vigil in honor of those hurt and killed in the Charlottesville conflict.

Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard said he has spoken with officials in Charlottesville to begin preparing for a white nationalist rally in Lexington. He said Kentucky State Police and Louisville Metro police have already pledged to help the city if needed.

“If they were to come to Lexington, we would plan to have an overwhelming amount of law enforcement to greet anyone and to ensure everyone was safe and had the right to free speech,” Barnard said.

The police department has successfully managed many large, public events — including sometimes rowdy celebrations after NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, said Brenna Angel, a spokeswoman for Lexington police.

“That’s not just a credit to our police officers but to the people of Lexington,” she said. “We work closely with groups that organize protests here and have a good relationship with them.”

Outside groups, though, are a concern, she said.

In Lexington, it is legal for groups to gather in public spaces without a permit as long as they do not block traffic. If traffic is blocked, a permit is required, she said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has included Heimbach’s group and others allied under the Nationalist Front on a list of what it defines as hate groups.

The Traditionalist Worker Party “advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems,” while an associated group, the National Socialist Movement is “notable for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric” and racist views, according to the center.

Heimbach said the League of the South is involved in talks to take part in a Lexington rally. That is a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by whites, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of the other groups listed under the umbrella of the Nationalist Front is Vanguard America. James Fields Jr., a 20-year-old man with ties to Kentucky, was reportedly photographed holding a shield with that group’s insignia before he allegedly hit Heyer and others with his car in Charlottesville.

Heimbach, who lives in Indiana, is no stranger to conflict in Kentucky.

He was among about 125 white nationalists who rallied in Pikeville in April. They exchanged shouts and harsh words with about 200 opponents, but a heavy police presence and metal barricades kept the two sides separated.

Last month, Heimbach pleaded guilty to second-degree disorderly conduct in Louisville after he was accused of physically harassing a woman during a March 2016 rally for Donald Trump.

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