It was truly a striking combination of stories the Herald-Leader chose for its front page last Sunday.
First, we saw that Mayor Jim Gray will finally act on the many protests and petitions for removing statues of Confederate veterans from the Cheapside area. Gray and Vice Mayor Steve Kay recognize, as we all should, that giving these icons such a prominent place in the city’s most popular venue distorts our local history. Keeping them there insults the memory and heritage of black Lexingtonians and any who find secession in defense of slaveholding morally reprehensible.
The statues must be respectfully relocated, and the city must take the opportunity to explore new ways of telling its history to visitors and residents.
At the center of the front page was a haunting and horrific image from a nearby city that chose to do essentially the same thing. Public protests for and against the city’s decision, we are led to believe, were intended to be peaceful, but they soon gave way to violence and death. A state of emergency now exists in Virginia, all an apparent consequence of the location of a statue.
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What are we to do in Lexington, after seeing all the horror that befell Charlottesville?
If we relocate Morgan and Breckinridge, the newly-emboldened Klansmen and neo-Nazis may very well descend upon our streets and spout their hate. If they do, we risk bringing the same violence seen in Charlottesville, which often accompanies mass meetings of white supremacists.
However if we back down now, we can be certain that it will only lend more boldness to the alt-right hatemongers.
In another section of the same day’s paper, Paul Prather wrote on the fierce division among Christians over supporting the president. He likely did not intend to comment on the events in Charlottesville and Cheapside, but I could not help but think of his column in connection to what I read earlier.
In reflecting on the fierce division among Christians over supporting the current administration, Prather draws parallels between our current political turmoil and the crises of secession and Civil War in the 1860s. Prather notes that throughout his years as president, Abraham Lincoln was baffled by the idea that both Union and Confederacy appealed to the same God (and thus, the same idea of “right”) as justification for fighting over slavery.
The “malleable” nature of faith and morality, to use Prather’s term, gave Lincoln pause in condemning his opponents, since he knew that humanity’s capacity to discern right and wrong is ultimately fallible.
But we do not remember Lincoln for his circumspection. We remember him for his action.
We can attempt a circumspect solution. We can leave the statues where they are until this all blows over. We can conclude, as Trump did, that protesters and counter protesters are equally to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, and thus it may be better not to invite this kind of trouble.
If that is what Gray and the Fayette County Urban Council choose to do, I’d say they resemble more John Crittenden than Lincoln: allowing an evil to linger rather than confront it outright — hoping that this unfortunate issue can be resolved later on, by later generations.
My hope is that our city will not back down. I have faith in our city’s ability to thoughtfully consider how best to tell our history. I have faith in our ability to let people exercise their rights as Americans to speak, no matter how vile and repulsive that speech may be. I have faith that our leaders and first responders can keep us safe. And I have faith that we can hear what white supremacists have to say and then respectfully and peaceably tell them that they are wrong.
Carson Benn is a PhdD candidate in history and president of the History Graduate Student Association at the University of Kentucky.