Two years ago, I argued that the statues of Lexington Confederates John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge should remain outside the old courthouse where they have stood for more than a century. I thought we just needed to add signs explaining the forces that put them there.
I was wrong. Historic context is needed, but it is not enough. These monuments must be moved to a less prominent public space, as soon as possible.
Two years ago, I thought the issue was how best to interpret the past for the present. But events since then have made me realize that that isn’t it at all. The issue is about making clear the difference between history and contemporary values. And about keeping racism from being perpetuated.
John C. Breckinridge was vice president of the United States and a candidate for president in 1860. After he lost that election to Abraham Lincoln, Breckinridge became a traitor to the United States, a Confederate general and the last Confederate secretary of war. Gen. John Hunt Morgan was a cavalry raider who targeted civilians and soldiers. They both fought to keep black people enslaved.
Their statues, created decades after the war, were products of a well-organized Confederate memorial movement. Its goal was to recast the failed Southern rebellion as a noble “lost cause” — and to remind black people that the notion of white supremacy didn’t end with the war.
That movement erected the statue of Breckinridge in 1887 and Morgan in 1911. And, in 1934, it commissioned a statue of another Kentuckian, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort. All three statues were heavily subsidized by state taxpayers.
Black legislators have tried unsuccessfully for years to evict Davis from the Capitol rotunda, and rightly so. When the issue resurfaced a few years ago, I saw moving the Davis statue as a no-brainer. The Capitol is the seat of government for all Kentuckians, of all races, and Davis should not be honored there.
But I took a more nuanced view of the Lexington statues. Had that site still been the Fayette County courthouse, there would be no question: They should go. But the courthouse had moved to another site more than a decade earlier, and city officials were figuring out how to restore and reuse that iconic public space to highlight Lexington’s history and culture.
Breckinridge and Morgan were a part of that history, so I thought they had a place there, with the addition of signs putting them in context with the Confederate memorial movement. Rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars to move them, I argued, that money would be better spent adding new statues there honoring Lexington’s abolitionists, black Union soldiers and civil rights leaders — and memorializing a place where enslaved people were whipped and sold.
It was a reasonable argument when society seemed to have made considerable progress toward overcoming the kind of racism that created those Confederate monuments. But that was then.
Now, instead of a black president trying to heal the nation’s racial divisions, we have a president who got to the White House by exploiting them. Donald Trump has empowered and emboldened racists like those we saw in Charlottesville, Va. These people want to turn back the clock of American progress, and some of them are now in positions of power to do it.
Defenders of Confederate memorials like to argue that moving or removing them amounts to rewriting history, but they are wrong. Fact is, these monuments were themselves attempts to rewrite history, to make racism honorable and disguise white supremacy as “Southern heritage.”
The Civil War might have ended 150 years ago, but racism has endured and will endure unless good people work hard to stop it. Teaching people to see these Confederate “heroes” for who they really were is a good place to start.