FRANKFORT — Kentucky's state government should not turn its back on Confederate symbols, including the Confederate battle flag and native son Jefferson Davis, speakers told more than 100 people Friday at a "Southern pride" rally outside the Capitol.
Southerners today are besieged by liberal activist groups and the news media who want them to feel ashamed of their history, said Thomas Hiter, a Marshall County church pastor and an officer with the Kentucky division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"They will come after all our monuments, and then they will come after our ancestors. We have to stop them!" Hiter told the crowd assembled on the Capitol's front steps.
Another speaker from the same group, Craig Cain, warned that the "history genocide" being committed on Southerners is akin to what Nazis did to Jews in Germany during the 1930s.
Kentucky and other state and local governments are reconsidering how they display Confederate symbols in the wake of the shooting deaths last month of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C. Police have implicated a white racist who previously was photographed with Confederate flags.
Several Kentucky politicians have called for removal of a statue of Jefferson Davis — the Kentucky-born president of the Confederacy — from the state Capitol Rotunda, to be placed instead in a museum. Gov. Steve Beshear asked the Historic Properties Advisory Commission to consider the matter. The commission, which has no blacks among its 14 members, is collecting public comments and plans to continue its discussion about the statue on Aug. 5.
Officials also announced Thursday that the Confederate flag no longer will be sold at Kentucky state parks, and it will be "strongly discouraged" at the Kentucky State Fair this year and banned in future years in response to a request from the Louisville chapter of the NAACP. In Lexington, Mayor Jim Gray has scheduled a public forum for Aug. 24 to discuss the future of two publicly displayed statues of Confederate generals and a slave-market historic marker in Cheapside Park.
Speakers at the Frankfort rally Friday said the Civil War was an act of Northern aggression against Southern freedom that had nothing to do with slavery or racism, so it's unfair to consider Confederate symbols tainted. Dylann Roof, the man charged with the Charleston church shootings, is to blame for that massacre, not the Confederate flag or anyone who takes pride in it, said Kevin Stone, a Sons of Confederate Veterans officer from North Carolina.
"We were attacked," Stone said. "Our Confederate Pearl Harbor happened when that deranged madman attacked those nine innocent people in Charleston."
But an Eastern Kentucky University historian said Friday that the Civil War very much was about slavery, and given that Confederates fought to keep humans in bondage because of their skin color, it's not surprising that their flag and leaders are offensive to many.
John Bowes, an EKU associate professor, said he routinely has to disabuse his students of "this romanticized, Gone With the Wind image, I call it, of the Civil War and what life in the South was really like."
"What is very clear when you look at the documents of secession — when you look at the declarations passed by South Carolina and the other states as they seceded in 1860 and 1861 — they very clearly identified slavery as their cause. They identified the defense of slavery as their key issue," said Bowes, who was not at the rally. "Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, gave a very famous speech, what's called his Cornerstone Speech, where he said that slavery, the understood inferiority of African-Americans, was the cornerstone of this new Southern nation they were forming."
At the rally, Hardin County deputy clerk Susan McCrobie said President Abraham Lincoln, who waged war on the Confederacy, was her first cousin five generations removed. During a seventh-grade field trip to the state Capitol, McCrobie said, she saw the large statues of her famous cousin and of Jefferson Davis and Henry Clay, all of whom did good and bad things in their lives. Hiding Davis' statue all these years later won't accomplish anything useful, she said.
"I came to appreciate these men even as I questioned some of their actions," McCrobie said.
Hiter, who served as the rally's moderator, told the crowd that a friend of his with digital technical expertise assured him that online Facebook photos showing Dylann Roof posing with Confederate flags had been altered, suggesting that unknown parties inserted the flags to pursue an anti-Southern political agenda. Liberal group MoveOn.org was raising money from the Confederate flag angle almost immediately after Roof's photos went public, Hiter said.
"The reason's very simple," Hiter told reporters afterward. "They needed a reason to attack the flag."