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Jefferson Davis Statue

UPDATE:Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, says he will introduce legislation in the 2016 General Assembly to shift the Davis statue from the Capitol rotunda to the Kentucky History Center, which is elsewhere in Frankfort, the state capital. The legislature will convene in January. 

South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, hauled down the Confederate battle flag from its capitol grounds in Columbia.

Kentucky, my native state, didn’t secede. But the state Property Advisory Commission says a 79-year-old white marble statue of Kentucky-born Confederate President Jefferson Davis can stay in the state Capitol rotunda.

Calls for removing Confederate symbols from government property have reverberated nationwide, especially in the South, since a white supremacist gunman who admires the Confederacy and its flag was charged with murdering nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, asked the commission, which has authority over the statue, to review its future.

The panel, which is all white, did, then voted 7-2–with one abstention–for the likeness to stay put, but with new “educational context," presumably meaning an explanatory sign.

The panel, which is all white, did, then voted 7-2–with one abstention–for the likeness to stay put, but with new “educational context," presumably meaning an explanatory sign.

Some of Davis’s words would be appropriate “educational context.”

In an 1861 address to the Confederate Congress, Davis, a rich, slave-owning Mississippi planter and ex-U.S. senator and secretary of war, lauded the South’s peculiar institution as a system by which “a superior race” had turned “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized laborers.”

A lot of white people partial to the Lost Cause are a sizable chunk of the GOP’s base in Red State Dixie and in border states like Kentucky. A few of them rallied on the capitol steps, waved Rebel flags, and sang “Dixie” in support of the Davis statue staying put.

Nonetheless, a raft of conservative Bluegrass State Republican bigwigs said the statue needs to go. They include Sens. Mitch McConnell and the tea party-tilting Rand Paul, Rep. Andy Barr, leaders of the state legislature, and another tea party favorite, Matt Bevin, the GOP’s candidate for governor.

Democrats who want the statue hauled away include state house and senate leaders and Attorney Gen. Jack Conway, Bevin’s opponent.

Jonathan Miller, a former Democratic state treasurer, started a petition to replace the Davis statue with a statue of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who is from Louisville.

Anyway, there's no doubt what almost all of Kentucky's Civil War-era legislators would say about the Confederate president's likeness: Not in our House, or Senate.

The General Assembly dissed Davis as an arch traitor. In a September, 1861, "Address of the Legislature to the People of Kentucky," a House committee called the Rebel president a liar for permitting his "insolent" soldiers to seize Hickman and Columbus, thereby breaching the Bluegrass State's fragile neutrality.

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"We were met by assurances from the President of the Confederate States that... [neutrality] should be respected; but the ink was scarcely dry with which the promise was written, when we were startled by the news that our soil was invaded," declared their address, which the pro-Union Louisville Journal published on Sept. 28, 1861.

The solons poured it on: "The [Confederates'] attempt to destroy the Union of these States we believe to be a crime, not only against Kentucky but against all mankind ... Let us show the insolent invaders that Kentucky belongs to Kentuckians, and that Kentucky valor will vindicate Kentucky's honor."

In declaiming Davis and his soldiers, the lawmakers were speaking for most Kentuckians. In August, 1861, before either army invaded Kentucky, voters enhanced the Union party's House majority to 74-26 over the Southern Rights or secessionist party. The Union bulge in the Senate jumped to 27-11.

After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's troops occupied Paducah and Smithland to keep the Rebels from grabbing those two strategic cities, the legislature abandoned neutrality—within the Union—and fully embraced the Union war effort.

On Oct. 1, 1861, the Unionist majority in the state House and Senate again showed its deep disdain for the Davis government by passing a law warning that any Confederate soldier from Kentucky caught invading the state would be declared "guilty of a felony and punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary from one to ten years," E. Merton Coulter wrote in The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky.

Under the law, too, anybody who persuaded a Kentuckian to join Davis' army and any man who enlisted were "deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not over $1,000 or imprisonment not exceeding six months," the historian added.

Perhaps the truest gauge of Kentucky's anti-Davis and anti-Confederate sentiment is the relative number of troops furnished to each side: 90,000 to 100,000 Yankees and 25,000 to 40,000 Rebels, according to A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter. (About 23,700 African-American Kentuckians joined the Union forces, more than from any other state except Louisiana.)

So the real Jeff Davis was hardly the people’s choice in his native state. The stone Jeff Davis mirrors Coulter's famous quip that Kentucky, "as was often remarked at the time ... waited until after the war to secede."

No sooner did the Confederates lose in 1865 than Kentucky became strongly pro-Southern. "This outward incongruity between the way white Kentuckians entered and participated in the Civil War and the way they remembered it has become one of the great paradoxes of Civil War history," historian Anne E. Marshall wrote in Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State. "The Lost Cause and the conservative politics that went with it seemed not only a comforting reminder of a past free of late 19th-century insecurities but also a way to reinforce contemporary efforts to maintain white supremacy," she added.

When the Davis statue was unveiled in 1936, 26 years after the new Capitol opened, Kentucky was along the northern boundary of the segregationist, white supremacist Jim Crow South.

berry craig

This 65-year-old lifelong Kentuckian applauds the leaders in the state's Democratic and Republican parties for saying the statue doesn’t belong in the rotunda. Kudos, too, for South Carolina for striking the Confederate colors.

The commission’s vote isn’t final. The Davis statue can be banished via an executive order from the governor or the legislature can vote to get rid of it. Here’s hoping that one way or another the statue will be carted off.

Meanwhile, Conway—okay, he’s my candidate for governor—expressed my views perfectly when he said, "I believe that the Jefferson Davis statue belongs in a museum, where history is taught, rather than in the state Capitol, where laws are made, where rights are upheld and where we strive for equal justice under the law."

Berry Craig

Berry Craig