Skip to main content

The Murray, Kentucky, city council thinks it’s time for the town’s Robert E. Lee statue to go.

lost cause

So does Murray State University, the school’s history and English and philosophy departments, assistant football coach Sherman Neal II, and Ja Morant, a pro basketball standout who starred in two seasons at MSU.

But the statue still stands because it belongs to Calloway County, not Murray, its seat. So far, county officials are disinclined to remove the 1917-vintage granite and marble courthouse lawn memorial to Lee and local Confederate soldiers, almost none of whom fought under the Confederacy's most famous general.

The monument features a 5½-foot statue of Lee standing on a plinth atop four stone pedestals. Originally, the plinth shaded a white-only drinking fountain.

Officials in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky's two largest cities, removed local Confederate monuments. Others have come down, or are coming down across the old Confederate states. (Kentucky was a divided border slave state that did not secede.)

"The [Civil] War was fought between two parties,” the West KentuckyStarquoted Neal. “One of those parties’ platforms was the subjugation of other human beings. The man...on top of that statue was for the subjugation of other human beings. … He represents that subjugation. That’s something that we all have to reckon with every day.”

Blake Hughes of Murray, population 19,300 and about as far west as Kentucky goes, defended the memorial. He suggested that Neal hadn’t lived in town long enough to have a rightful say about it. 

Hughes also linked local opposition to the statue to nationwide protests against police brutality against African Americans and other minorities. “The timing is far too convenient, coinciding with the illegal and despicable destruction, burning, and looting of businesses, government buildings, and historical artifacts across the country,” Hughes said, according to the Star.

Recently, several people, African Americans, other persons of color and whites, marched peacefully in Murray, protesting racist police violence and against the Confederate memorial.

Recently, several people, African Americans, other persons of color and whites, marched peacefully in Murray, protesting racist police violence and against the Confederate memorial.

One white man shot chemical spray at the marchers; another white man pointed a gun at them. Police arrested both men.

Local opponents of the Lee statue are echoing arguments made by political leaders, pundits, scholars and civil rights organizations nationally.

"There is no earthly reason any of this nation’s public spaces should be defiled by statuary honoring generals, soldiers and politicians who were traitors, who took up arms against their country, who did so to perpetuate slavery, and who — this is an important point — were losers," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. “....'Oh, but you’re erasing history,” defenders of such memorials always say. Nonsense. The monuments themselves are an attempt to rewrite history and assert white supremacy. Put them in some sort of Museum of Shame, if you must, but get them out of the public square."

Likewise, the Southern Poverty Law Center says "the argument the Confederate flag and other displays represent 'heritage, not hate' 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."

Similarly, retired Murray State history professor Bill Mulligan says of those who insist "that removing monuments tries to erase history; they miss the principal point of monuments. Monuments assert this person or movement did some good and positive thing that should be remembered and honored. The Confederacy and its supporters are not deserving of such recognition.

"What is good and positive about preserving slavery? Monuments are inherently political in a broad sense. This marker and others erected between roughly 1890 and 1920 were part of an organized effort to rewrite the history of the Civil War and assert white supremacy.

"Removing a monument simply states that society no longer sees what this person or movement did as good and positive. It no longer reflects our values as a society. That cannot be clearer than the monuments erected– secession and waging war to defend slavery should not be seen as something positive to celebrate, especially on government land.

"Slavery was maintained by a brutal regime of abuse in all its forms, physical, sexual, and psychological to name three. There is a large and growing historical literature that clearly shows the monuments of this era that are at courthouses and cemeteries were statements of white supremacy, even if sometimes unconscious....The monuments are part of a larger effort to rewrite the history of the Civil War by eliminating the main cause, slavery. It is those who seek to remove and relocate them that are defending and advocating for history as it happened."

It's hardly a secret that conservative whites, especially white evangelicals like those in Calloway County, comprise a big chunk of the Trump base. The president has lamented the taking down of "beautiful" memorials as "foolish" while tweeting that he's “[s]ad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart,” according to the SPLC.

The group cites New Orleans, 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?"

While the Crescent City was purging itself of rebel statuary, an effort to remove the Murray monument was failing in Murray.

Imes was asked about the memorial at a 2018 candidate forum. He vowed that the statue would stay as long as he was judge-executive, Murray State radio WKMS reported. “The only time it would be removed is by a majority vote of the fiscal court, I would act under their direction, or in the case of federal marshals hauling me off to Paducah and putting me in federal prison. They could do what they want to after that,” the National Public Radio affiliate quoted him.

The Murray city council unanimously passed a resolution calling on county officials to remove the statue.

The move followed a letter Neal sent to Mayor Bob Rogers. “The Robert E. Lee Confederate memorial statue … is an affront to all residents who support notions of equality and value the American justice system,” wrote Neal, who is African American. “The ‘friendliest small town in America’ must remove this symbol of oppression if the purported friendliness extends to its black residents.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Morant, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association, led MSU to the Ohio Valley Conference championship last year. He wrote Imes: “As a young Black man, I cannot stress enough how disturbing and oppressive it is to know the city still honors a Confederate war general defending white supremacy and hatred. 

“We can’t change the culture of racism unless we change the celebration of racism.”

Timothy Johns, an English professor, coordinated his department’s letter to Imes. The letter chided those who insist Confederate monuments reflect Southern “heritage” and not racism. “It’s about the history and heritage of lynching. And of Jim Crow Laws in the United States.” 

The history department also wrote Imes. The local branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which helped raise money for the monument, represented “the Lost Cause ideology, which, during the Jim Crow era, sought to rewrite history by denying the central role slavery played in causing the Civil War,” the letter said. (Nine years after the Murray monument was unveiled, a North Carolina UDC chapter erected a memorial to the Ku Klux Klan, which, today, is among the fiercest defenders of Confederate monuments and symbols.)

Like Mulligan, the letter also said defenders of Confederate monuments miss the point when they claim that carting them away erases history. “Removing a monument simply states that society no longer sees what this person did as good and positive.”

Monuments like the one in Murray sprouted on dozens of courthouse lawns, and in parks and other public spaces across the old Confederacy and in border states like Kentucky during the post-Reconstruction, decades-long Jim Crow era. White supremacy, segregation and race discrimination, held in place by violence or threat of violence, were the law and the social order. 

Even before Jim Crow, a postwar Lost Cause myth had arisen, largely revolving around Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general. The myth held that “states’ rights,” not slavery, mainly motivated 11 Southern slave states to secede from the Union in 1860-1861. (Slaves were universally happy and well-treated, and kindly masters were the rule, according to the myth.)

In 1861-1865, the Confederates engaged in armed rebellion against the lawfully constituted United States government. The Civil War was the most lethal conflict in American history.

The Confederates made it abundantly clear that they exited the Union because they feared that President Abraham Lincoln and his “Black Republican” party aimed to abolish slavery.

South Carolina, the first state to secede, besought the 14 other slave states — including Kentucky — “to join us, in forming a Confederacy of Slaveholding States.” 

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said he was glad the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon 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.”

Though Calloway countians fought under other rebel commanders, local officials chose Lee to top the monument. He was a favorite subject of many monument-makers.

The memorials reflected ex-Confederates and pro-Confederate historians and journalists’ portrayal of Lee as a noble warrior who rose above defeat to help reunite the country. The Lost Cause myth became widely believed even in the North.

According to the myth, Lee had personally opposed slavery and secession but was “loyal to his state” and went with Virginia into the Confederacy. (His fellow Virginians, Gens. Winfield Scott and George H. Thomas, stuck with the Union.)

“The legend’s image of Lee is at odds with the facts,” wrote historian Alan T. Nolan in The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. “He was not anti-slavery as the image claims; he was a strong believer in the institution.” (When his army invaded free state Pennsylvania in 1863, some of Lee’s soldiers seized free Blacks and sent them south into slavery.)

Lee’s decision to throw in with Virginia and the Confederates “was not inevitable, but a calculated act of will in highly ambiguous circumstances,” Nolan also wrote. “… In the postwar period, he was less of a healer than he was a conventional advocate of Southern positions.”

Essentially, the Lee myth holds that "he was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together," Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic. "There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error."

Added Serwer: "Lee was a slave owner—his own views on slavery were explicated in an 1856 letter that is often misquoted to give the impression that Lee was some kind of abolitionist." Serwer wrote that in the the letter, Lee argued "that slavery is bad for white people, good for black people, and most important, better than abolitionism; emancipation must wait for divine intervention. That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee."

Serwer continued, "Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that 'Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families' by hiring them off to other plantations, and that 'by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.' The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as 'the worst man I ever see.'"

Whatever Lee's personal views on slavery and secession, he fought on behalf of an independent Southern nation built on the twin pillars of slavery and white supremacy.

Murray’s Lee statue is hardly as well known as the huge bronze equestrian statue of the general in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Gov. Ralph Northam wants it removed. So does the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the Lee family.

He’s ready for the Lost Cause to get lost, even if some in Murray aren’t. 

“I am fully aware that the broken, racist system we have built on the Lost Cause is far larger than a single statue, but the statue of my ancestor has stood for years in Richmond as an idol of this white supremacist mind-set,” Lee wrote in the Washington Post. “The statue is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.

[dc]“….T[/dc]he new cause of this country is about justice, equality, peace and concord. We can and must be different. Now is the time to make this new cause the hope of this upcoming generation of activists. We can give the gift of Southern hospitality and community instead of passing on a pseudo-historical and oppressive understanding of the world.”

Image placeholder title

Berry Craig