Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday the controversial statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, should be removed from the Kentucky Capitol, calling it a divisive symbol.
Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the first black person to hold that office, also said he thinks the statue should be relocated.
Beshear, a Democrat, echoed his position in last year’s race for governor and sentiments expressed this week by some public officials across the nation about Confederate statues amid anti-racism protests.
“I believe the Jefferson Davis statue is a symbol that divides us, and even if there are those that think it’s a part of history, there should be a better place to put it in historic context,” Beshear said in response to a question during his regular news conference to update Kentuckians on the coronavirus pandemic.
“Right now, seeing so much pain in our state and across our country, can’t we at least realize that so many of our fellow Kentuckians — people that, again, we’re talking about having compassion in terms of COVID, we ought to have compassion for all pain — can’t we understand that it is, at the very least, so hurtful to them? Doesn’t that at least justify it not sitting where it does right now?”
Cameron, a Republican, said in an email, “Jefferson Davis is our past, but he didn’t define our future, Abraham Lincoln did.
“I think the Davis statue should be relocated, but it is up to the Historical Properties Advisory Commission. If the commission decides to replace it, I can think of many other historical figures more deserving of a permanent home in our Capitol.”
Names that have been mentioned as possible replacement for the Davis statue include heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, National Urban League leader Whitney Young Jr., state senator and civil rights leader Georgia Davis Powers and Lillian Press, an education innovator who organized and directed Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholars program to promote academic growth for high school students.
The issue of Confederate statues has arisen in recent days as protests have occurred in many American cities over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by police in Minneapolis and the shooting death of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. In Louisville, rallies have been held this week in memory of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police this year, and David McAtee, who died after National Guard members and police returned fire when they were fired upon while clearing a parking lot area.
Jordan Harris, founder of the think-tank Pegasus Institute, wrote a letter Wednesday to Beshear, asking him to “immediately take the necessary actions to remove Jefferson Davis’ statue” from the Capitol Rotunda.
He said in his two-page letter that the Davis and other Confederate statutes throughout the United States were put in place to promote “the Lost Cause narrative that developed a generation after the close of the Civil War.”
“The anti-historical narrative sought to recast the meaning of the Civil War, to wash it of the South’s efforts to protect the institution of slavery at all cost — even dividing the Union — and to ignore the narrative of racial superiority which became a centerpiece of the South’s economic system.”
Harris told Beshear, “You have been willing to take bold actions in recent months to protect Kentuckians. Take yet another, one which protects both our past and our future, by removing Jefferson Davis from the Capitol Rotunda immediately.”
John T. Suttles of Paducah, past president of the Kentucky division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, disagrees. The group’s website says, “Make Dixie Great Again.”
Suttles said Beshear is “pandering” and “there’s no need, except pandering, for him to say things like that.”
“The Jefferson Davis statue needs to stay where it exactly is,” said Suttles. “Davis was a great American and a great Kentuckian.”
Told that some people consider the statue in the seat of Kentucky’s government offensive, Suttles said, “We all can be offended by something. Look, we are grown people. Act like grown-ups.”
Raymond M. Burse, a black civil rights leader and former president of Kentucky State University, said, “Most African-Americans align with the view that the statue should be elsewhere, not in the building that represents all Kentuckians. Move it to the Kentucky History.”
Similar debates about Confederate statues are going on across the nation.
On Thursday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia will remove a six-story monument honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the city of Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy.
Earlier this week, Birmingham, Ala., at the initiation of Mayor Randall Woodfin began removing the Confederate Solder and Sailors monument from a public park.
On Tuesday, officials in Rocky Mounty, N.C., voted to remove a marble monument honoring Confederate soldiers from a city park. Confederate statues have been reportedly vandalized in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Norfolk, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
In August 2015, the Kentucky Historic Properties and Advisory Commission, which oversees state statues, voted 7-2 to keep the statue of Davis in the Capitol Rotunda, where it stands with statues of President Abraham Lincoln and three other prominent Kentuckians.
The panel also voted then to produce educational materials for the public about all the Capitol’s statues.
But there still are no materials. That’s longer than it took to wage the four-year Civil War that split the nation over slavery from 1861 to 1865.
Several civil rights advocates and Kentucky politicians and officials over the years, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have called for moving the Tennessee marble likeness of Davis, who was born in Kentucky, to the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort or to the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Todd County.
In 2018, officials quietly removed from the base of the statue a controversial plaque that called Davis a “hero.”
An uproar five years ago over the Davis statue and others like it across the nation intensified after nine black people were killed in June 2015 during a Bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C. The alleged shooter had an affinity for Confederate symbols.
A Bluegrass Poll in 2015 showed that 73% of Kentuckians favored keeping the Davis statue in the Capitol. Seventeen% said it should be moved to a museum. It was unveiled in the Capitol in 1936.
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