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By Berry Craig/For The Sentinel

Murray’s controversial court square Confederate monument “represents a distorted, bloody and awful past that we cannot forget but should not celebrate,” said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy.

The 1917-vintage stone memorial is topped by a 5½-foot statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general. Originally, the monument included a whites-only drinking fountain during segregation days.

About 800 Calloway County men joined the Confederate army, though apparently few, if any, of them soldiered under Lee.  

Paid for by a United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) fund-drive, the monument is typical of hundreds of such Confederate memorials—many, if not most, of them UDC-sponsored. Typically made of stone or bronze–or both–nearly all of the tributes were erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on courthouse lawns and in parks, cemeteries and other public places. 

The real Robert E. Lee 

Dozens of memorials have been removed in recent years, including a large bronze equestrian statue of Lee in Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital for most of the Civil War. Defenders of the statuary and Lee, whom many white Southerners revere, took to social media and “revived old claims that Lee was against secession and slavery, was practically an abolitionist and never personally owned enslaved people,” wrote The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell.

She added, “On the one hand, it is true that Lee opposed secession in early 1861, before Virginia seceded. On the other hand, there’s everything else.

“For example, Lee also said he would ‘never bear arms against the Union’ except to defend Virginia — a vow he did not keep at Antietam or Gettysburg. And despite what old revisionist history or social media memes claim, Lee owned enslaved people. He drove them hard, and he pursued and punished them when they escaped. He separated families to pay off debts and fought in court to prevent them from being freed.”

Other Kentucky monuments are gone

Officials in Louisville and Lexington also removed local Confederate monuments. Others have come down across the old Confederate states. Calloway County and the rest of the Jackson Purchase were overwhelmingly pro-Confederate. The rest of Kentucky, while divided, was mainly pro-Union. The state spurned secession and many more Kentuckians donned Union blue than opted for Confederate gray.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites New Orleans, a key Confederate port, where “in 2017, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu powerfully defended the city’s removal of three prominent monuments and denounced the ‘false narrative’ promoted by the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause.’ ‘That cult,’ he said, ‘had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.'”

The SPLC encourages “communities across the country to reflect on the true meaning of these symbols and ask the question: Whose heritage do they truly represent?

After a white police officer murdered George Floyd, who was Black, in 2020, protests against racism and police brutality erupted nationwide. Some of the protests included demands that Confederate statues and monuments like the one in Murray be taken down. 

Sherman Neal II, then a Murray State football coach, sent a letter to Murray Mayor Bob Rogers asking that the monument be removed because it was “an affront to all residents who support notions of equality and value the American justice system.” Neal added, “The ‘friendliest small town in America’ must remove this symbol of oppression if the purported friendliness extends to its black residents.”

Lee’s last stand?

The Murray City Council unanimously resolved to ask the Calloway County Fiscal Court to “expeditiously remove and relocate” the monument. But the monument still stands because the courthouse and court square are county, not city, property. The fiscal court has been disinclined to remove the monument. 

Besides Neal, the resolution was backed by Murray State University and former Murray State basketball standout Ja Morant who is now a star for the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association.

Gov. Andy Beshear called for the removal of all Confederate memorials in public spaces in Kentucky, notably a marble statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a Kentucky native, in the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. 

“If it is at a courthouse, it ought to come down,” he said. “Having a Confederate monument on courthouse grounds or in the rotunda is not the right thing.”  

In her inaugural address on the Capitol steps earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman referred to the Davis monument: “The symbolism on these grounds is important, and so are the lessons we draw from it. But it is just as important what you don’t see here today. There is an empty space in the rotunda where the statue of Jefferson Davis once stood. That is because we not only installed the capitol’s first female statue, we also removed one that represented division. Of course, removing a statue doesn’t change history. But we can all agree that every Kentuckian – young and old, male and female, all colors, and all faiths, deserve to feel that they belong, if this is truly to be the ‘People’s House.’”  

The state removed the Davis statue in 2020, the same year that Daviess County’s all-white fiscal court voted to take down the statue of a Confederate soldier on the courthouse lawn in Owensboro. A lawsuit over the monument’s ownership delayed the removal until 2022. 

Did old-time Republicans call Confederates traitors?

During the Civil War, Republicans, then a Northern anti-slavery party, denounced Davis and the Confederates as traitors. But many current Republicans, including Donald Trump, have defended the Confederate monuments–and opposed efforts to rename military bases named for Confederate generals. 

“Confederate heroes and the battle flag they fought under were willing, as John C. Calhoun wrote, ‘to drench the country in blood’ to maintain white supremacy,” wrote Jeffery Robinson of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Preserving their names on military institutions essentially tells Black Americans, ‘We don’t care what they did to your ancestors. Don’t bring it up, or we will be even more divided.’ Monuments that portray confederate traitors as heroes have done nothing to prevent a new rise in white supremacy—they are literally monuments to this harmful, racist ideology, which will be engrained in our memories and history books no matter how many monuments are toppled.” 

Meanwhile, in 2020, as protestors gathered to demand the Murray monument’s removal, counter-protestors rallied to defend it. Murray became part of the nationwide dispute over Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag. 

Monument supporters claim that removing them erases history. They say the monuments–and the flag–don’t glorify slavery. Rather, they maintain, the iconography represents “heritage, not hate” and honors the memory of ordinary Confederate soldiers.

The SPLC and many scholars weigh in on the “heritage, not hate,” “erasing history” and “states’ rights” business

The SPLC says the “heritage, not hate” claim “ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today. And it conceals the true history of the Confederate States of America and the seven decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression that followed the Reconstruction era.”

Clardy said the Murray monument “sends a signal to people of color and others that you’re not welcome here.” Many scholars agree with him.

“The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion,” said Harvard University historian Annette Gordon-Reed. “The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation.” 

She disagrees that removing the monuments is erasing history. “History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.”

The “slippery slope”?

Gordon-Reed doesn’t buy the “slippery slope” argument that getting rid of Confederate monuments will necessarily lead to the razing of memorials to slave owning “founding fathers” like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson: “There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. They are both excellent candidates for …contextualization… 

“The Confederate statues were put up…to send a message about white supremacy, and to sentimentalize people who had actively fought to preserve the system of slavery. No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation. They put up monuments to T.J. because of the Declaration of Independence, which every group has used to make their place in American society. Or they go up because of T.J.’s views on separation of church and state and other values that we hold dear. I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with sweet. The main duty is not to hide the bitter parts.”    

Western Carolina University anthropologist Ben Steere argues that the monuments weren’t really built to honor the Confederate soldiers because they were erected long after the war ended. Their purpose, he said, was “to push back against the racial progress of Reconstruction.”

Added Steere, a Tarheel State native: “I support the removal of Confederate monuments in my home state of North Carolina. I support their removal everywhere. Doing so will not erase history. Instead, it will add another layer to the archaeological record of our nation’s long, tortured attempt to wrestle with its original sins of genocide, land theft and slavery.”

Likewise, the Society of Architectural Historians says Confederate memorials “express white supremacy and dominance, causing discomfort and distress to African American citizens who utilize the public spaces occupied by these monuments. Our inaction gives these monuments power. By leaving them in place, we allow the dead hand of the past to direct some Americans away from that which belongs to all of us. History has proven that progress is possible, but also that the persistent racial schism in our society will not be conquered without radical, sustained action. The removal of Confederate monuments is a necessary and important step in this process, and one that cannot wait any longer.” 

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah. He lives in Arlington, Kentucky, and is the author of seven books on Kentucky history, including three published by the University Press of Kentucky: Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase (2014), Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis (2018) and Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy (2020). He co-authored two other books and has written articles for The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society and The Jackson Purchase Historical Society Journal

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.


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