Let’s not let Kentucky repeat racial history

Statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, still stands in the Kentucky Capitol. Lexington recently removed two Confederate statues from downtown to a cemetery.
Statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, still stands in the Kentucky Capitol. Lexington recently removed two Confederate statues from downtown to a cemetery. File photo

“I’m a strong believer that if you fail to recognize history, you are doomed to repeat it.”

So stated Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, in remarks that decried the city of Lexington’s decision to remove two statues of Confederate heroes from the public square to the city’s cemetery.

Morgan, in his opposition to the removal of these monuments, is himself revealing his ignorance of the history that put them there in the first place.

Anyone reflecting on the subject might well wonder just how these statues came to be erected since the Confederates, after all, were the losers of our Civil War.

Just like the Loyalists in our first civil war, the American Revolution, the Confederates were on the wrong side of history. One finds no statue to the quintessential Loyalist, Benedict Arnold, even though the Loyalists likely constituted a greater proportion of Americans in 1776 than did the Confederates in 1861.

Unlike the Loyalists, however, the Confederates may have lost the war but eventually won the peace.

Following the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865, the federal government, under President Andrew Johnson, at first allowed the governments of the states who had seceded to reconstruct themselves.

When it became all too clear that these states had no intention of constructing a society in which the civil equality of the former slaves would be honored, Congress stepped in to take over the reconstruction of the South. That effort ultimately failed.

By 1877, Southern whites, exploiting the corruption of Reconstruction governments, the Reconstruction fatigue of the North, as well as utilizing lethal violence against blacks and their white allies, had “redeemed” the former states of the Confederacy. They regained autonomy to establish the Jim Crow laws and segregation traditions.

In addition, laws intended to suppress black voting, such as poll taxes and rigged literacy tests, deprived blacks of the political power the Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments had won for them.

So, too, did sharecropping and debt peonage represent a new kind of labor bondage. Thus did Southern whites construct a new system of racial control, not as absolutely oppressive as slavery, but effective enough in reinstating white supremacy as the raison d’être of Southern society.

The Lost Cause, it turns out, was not lost at all.

It was during the eras of Redemption and Jim Crow (1877-1950) that the statues honoring Confederate heroes were erected, symbols of this turning back of history to a pre-Civil war racial order. That is what the statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan were meant to glorify.

So, if Wesley Morgan’s efforts somehow leads to the restoration of these statues to their original sites, he would be perpetuating that history. It would be glorifying what Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, candidly declared as “cornerstone ... the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

It is the knowledge of that history that renders these statues so painful and offensive a presence to African-Americans and to any Americans who want to see us, at long last, transcend that shameful past.

Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.

At issue: Herald-Leader article, “Lawmaker was ‘sick’ when Confederate statues moved. His bill would make it harder”