Politics & Government

Lawmaker was ‘sick’ when Confederate statues moved. His bill would make it harder.

The Jefferson Davis statue (left) sits amid other statues, including Abraham Lincoln, in the Capitol Rotunda at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Thursday, January 11, 2018.
The Jefferson Davis statue (left) sits amid other statues, including Abraham Lincoln, in the Capitol Rotunda at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

When Lexington removed two statues of Confederate generals last year from its former county courthouse, state Rep. C. Wesley Morgan said he got “sick to my stomach.”

“It’s just not right,” said the Republican lawmaker from Richmond. “I’m a strong believer that if you fail to recognize history, you are doomed to repeat it.”

Morgan, who is in the liquor store business, has filed legislation in this year’s Kentucky General Assembly to make it harder to remove and relocate Confederate statues in the state.

The controversial issue of Confederate statues intensified nationwide last August when protests erupted in Charlottesville, Va., about the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It had stood in the city since 1924. Violence left one person dead and dozens injured.

Soon afterward, the Urban County Council in Lexington unanimously voted to remove the statues of Confederate Generals John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge from the lawn of the former county courthouse with plans for them to go to the Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried.

The statues had stood there since 1887 and 1911, but Mayor Jim Gray said it was wrong to honor people who fought to keep the institution of slavery alive with statues on the same ground that was once one of the largest slave markets in the South.

The statues were removed overnight in October hours after state Attorney General Andy Beshear issued a legal opinion that said the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission had no say in whether the statues should be removed.

Wesley Morgan
State Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond. Legislative Research Commission

Morgan’s legislation — House Bill 54 — would set up a Committee on Monument Protection to oversee statues and monuments on all property owned or leased by the state or any county, municipal or metro government.

The 12-page bill, called the Kentucky Memorial Preservation Act of 2018, sets up guidelines for the committee to follow in deciding whether public statues and monuments should be removed or relocated.

The House speaker and Senate president each would appoint three members and the governor would select five members, with input from agencies ranging from the Kentucky Historical Society to the Council on Postsecondary Education. Two of the three appointees from each legislative leader would have to be a lawmaker. The governor’s appointees would include two from the public, a county-judge executive and two mayors, including one from a first-class city.

The panel would meet before Oct. 1, 2019 and then at least once each year in October. The historic properties division in the Finance Cabinet would administer it.

Pamela Trautner, spokeswoman for the Finance Cabinet, said the agency is reviewing Morgan’s bill.

The committee would also oversee the fate of a controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Capitol Rotunda.

The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which oversees state-owned statues, voted 7-2 in August 2015 to keep the statue where it has been since 1936, but to add educational material that helps put the statue in historical context. To date, no educational material has been added.

Last October, the panel voted to remove a bronze plaque from the statue that declares Davis a “patriot — hero —statesman” but that plan changed a month later after questions arose about the commission’s legal authority to take down the plaque. Answers about that issue are expected in February.

State Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, said he finds the Davis statue in the Capitol offensive.

“Rep. Morgan seems to be the new face of the Republican Party,” Meeks said. “I don’t see any Republican leader saying, no, this is not who we are, we don’t want these statues on government property. I hope the values these statues represent are long gone, but I am afraid they are not.”

Meeks said he plans to file a bill this legislative session to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from the Capitol.

Fred Wilhite of Calhoun, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Kentucky, said Morgan’s bill should be “stronger.”

“It’s too political, putting too many politicians on the panel instead of public citizens,” he said.

Wilhite also criticized the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission “for being so toothless. It should have gone after what Lexington did and stopped that in its tracks.”

Morgan said the legislation does not mean he supports what Confederates endorsed.

The Confederates States of America was an unrecognized country in North America that existed between 1861 to 1865. It originally was formed by seven secessionist slave-holding states in the South whose economy was dependent upon slaves. The Civil War ended the Confederacy.

“In the history of the United States, slavery was a dark spot,” Morgan said. “It should not have happened but it did and we should not destroy our whole country or history because of it.”

Asked what he would say to people who find the Jefferson Davis statue offensive, Morgan said, “Jefferson Davis was a Kentuckian. I don’t find it offensive. I find it as part of our history.

“There might be some people who might think a statue of Martin Luther King might be offensive but he is part of our history. Now, I would be 100 percent against putting a statue of a Klansman in a public building.”

Lexington councilman Bill Farmer said Morgan is mistaken if he believes the city is trying to destroy its history.

“Lexington did not allow these Confederate monuments to be torn down, which happened in other cities; nor did we hide our history through this move,” Farmer said. “Lexington found the right solution, unlike any other city in America to this point, where we can respect the space where slaves were sold, as well as respect and explain the history these Confederate men represent where they are also buried — in the Lexington Cemetery.”

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