Politics & Government

Remove Jefferson Davis statue or be on ‘wrong side of history,’ black leaders tell Bevin

Jefferson Davis statue 'needs to be removed'

Various community members and organizations from around Kentucky gathered in the state Capitol Rotunda to rally in support of removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Aug. 30, 2017.
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Various community members and organizations from around Kentucky gathered in the state Capitol Rotunda to rally in support of removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Aug. 30, 2017.

Gov. Matt Bevin will be “on the wrong side of history” if he doesn’t push for removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda, many of the state’s black leaders said at a rally Wednesday as the 15-foot statue loomed over them.

State Sen. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, told the crowd Bevin has “the responsibility as a man of God” to rise above the politics of the past and remove the statue, which speakers called a symbol of bigotry, injustice and slavery.

Davis, a Kentucky native, was the president of 11 slave-holding states in the South that seceded from the United States during the 1861-1865 Civil War .

Bevin has repeatedly declined to say whether he thinks the statue should remain where it is or be moved to a museum, stating only that bigotry and hate have no place in Kentucky. His press office did not respond Wednesday to questions about the rally and statue.

Two years ago, as a candidate for governor, Bevin supported removing the statue.

The black leaders said Wednesday that it is an insult that the Davis statue, which stands a few feet from a larger statue of Abraham Lincoln and not far from the governor’s office, occupies a place of honor in Kentucky’s seat of government.

Blacks for years have advocated removal of the Davis statue, which was placed in the Rotunda in 1936 during the first administration of then-Gov. Albert B. “Happy” Chandler.

The removal of Confederate monuments and symbols has intensified nationwide since a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly.

Black leaders participating in Wednesday’s “Move the Monument” rally included representatives from the Kentucky Black Legislative Caucus, the NAACP, the Kentucky Human Rights Commission and the Kentucky Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials.

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Kentucky NAACP, noted at the rally that Kentucky did not follow Davis into the Confederacy when he was alive.

“Why does he hold such a place of honor now?” he asked.

Raoul Cunningham, of Louisville, Ky., president of the Kentucky State Conference of the NAACP, center, prepares to speak while standing in front of a statue of Jefferson Davis with Brenda Martin, of Ashland, Ky., first vice president of the Boyd-Greenup County branch of the NAACP, right, and Marcus Ray, of Elizabethtown, Ky., president of the Hardin County branch of the NAACP, at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Demonstrators and speakers gathered at the Capitol Rotunda calling for the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue from the capitol. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Stan Holmes, president of the Kentucky Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, delivered his message for Bevin in a loud voice: “Governor, tear down these old walls and let’s build new walls together.”

State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, called on all elected leaders to join him in asking Bevin to remove the statues.

Neal and Meeks pledged to file legislation to remove the statue if it is not gone by the time the Kentucky General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Gerald Smith, chairman of the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, noted that the Davis statue has a plaque on it that calls him “patriot, hero, statesman.”

“Today we come to tell the rest of the story,” said Smith, saying Davis was a symbol of segregation and white supremacy.

“We’re tired of being marginalized,” he said.

After the speeches, Smith asked representatives of any organization that supports their cause to be recognized. They included Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Frankfort Human Rights Commission, Together Frankfort, Kentucky State AFL-CIO, the Urban League, National Organization of Women, Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth’s office.

Before the rally, Kentucky Democratic Party spokesman Brad Bowman said in a statement that the party supports moving the statue.

“We are not sanitizing our history, we are standing up for social justice because of the very history of slavery in this state,” Bowman said. “To those that say we are sanitizing our history, the KDP wholly disagrees. The very reason this statue stands in our Capitol is that we have forgotten our history. And its relocation will be the first step in remembering it.”

The rally was peaceful but there was a brief war of words between two attendees at its conclusion.

Joseph Springer of Louisville and Lisa Coons of Frankfort get into a heated argument over the Jefferson Davis statue in the Capitol Rotunda Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.

Joseph Springer of Louisville defended the statue, saying “I don’t see it so much as a race issue as an erasing history issue.” Lisa Coons of Frankfort took issue with Springer, asking “why shouldn’t it be in a museum, not in the Rotunda, when this person was a traitor?”

The state NAACP was unsuccessful two years ago in trying to get the Davis statue out of the Capitol Rotunda. The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 7-2 to keep it there.

The commission, which oversees the statues in the Capitol, said the likeness of the Confederate president juxtaposed nicely with the statue of fellow Kentucky native Lincoln as a testimony to the state’s divisive history during and after the Civil War.

The vote by the commission, which was all white at the time, followed the racially motivated slayings of nine black church members in South Carolina, prompting a re-examination of Confederate symbolism across the South.

The panel also decided in 2015 to produce educational materials that provide background and context about the Davis statue and four others in the Rotunda. However, the panel waited until last month to form a committee to create the educational materials.

The chairman of the panel, Steve Collins of Shelbyville, has said it does not plan to revisit the removal of the statue unless the governor asks the panel to reconsider.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics