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Bill Straub: When Jefferson Davis statue gets heave-ho, replace with likeness of Georgia Davis Powers

Uncovering an issue that Kentucky Republicans and Democrats on both the federal and state level agree upon is rather like finding a gold nugget in a Cracker Jack box – rare, unexpected and very welcome.

It happened recently in wake of the tragic shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina, church basement by an avowed racist that left nine African-Americans dead. Led by Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, quickly joined by U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and, eventually, by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, it was forcefully recommended that an unacceptable symbol of racism – the statue of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis – be removed from the capitol rotunda in Frankfort.

Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat and cautious as ever, sent the question to the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission to determine the statue’s future. It’s almost certain Davis ultimately will be run out on a rail – a fate he so richly deserves.

Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky capitol (Photo from Ky.gov)

Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky capitol (Photo from Ky.gov)

A legitimate question can be raised regarding how an avowed white supremacist and traitor to the United States could be honored with his likeness standing in the rotunda of the state capitol for 79 years in the face of only hushed objections. Ironically, Justice Anthony Kennedy probably hit on it last week in an unrelated matter — his majority opinion in the Obergefell case that legitimized same-sex marriage throughout the country – when he wrote, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.’’

For years after the fall of the South and the end of the “peculiar institution,’’ participants on the losing side persisted in rationalizing their behavior, asserting they were involved in a noble cause, an odd characterization of slavery.

While Kentucky was officially a border state during what was euphemistically characterized as the “unpleasantness,’’ it remained under Union control for the most part and more Kentuckians fought on the Northern side – about 90,000 – than fought for the Confederacy – about 35,000.

But the Rebels were nothing if not a determined bunch and their allegiance to the CSA ran deep – so deep that claims of valor were accepted in Kentucky well into the 20th century, hence the statue’s unveiling in 1936. The “Judge Priest’’ stories by Paducah native Irwin Cobb, tales like “The Mob From “Massac,’’ display just how committed they were to the lost cause and their determination to keep it alive.

There was also the historic oddity, of course, that the leaders on both sides of the conflict – Lincoln and Davis – were born in the Bluegrass State. But that’s where the comparison of the two should end.

We have finally reached a point where the enslavement of a people is viewed as horrific as opposed to noble and that those who led the rebellion – individuals like Jefferson Davis – are more worthy of condemnation than celebration. It’s time for the commission to deep six old “Massa Jeff’’ with the proviso that this should open, not close, the discussion about racism in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Assuming Davis gets his deserved heave-ho, the commission likely will consider placement of a new and different statue. As a card-carrying member in good standing of the White Guys Club, an honored, dues-paying member for 62 years as a matter of fact, may I humbly suggest that the commonwealth’s decision makers look beyond males with a fair complexion to fill that void.

The rotunda outside the governor’s office in the state capitol building is one of the most honored of public places and it’s time to offer up the appreciation other folks deserve.

Even with the Davis ouster, four white, male figures likely will remain in the rotunda – Abe Lincoln, of course, the “Great Compromiser’’ Henry Clay, noted frontier physician Ephraim McDowell and former Vice President Alben Barkley. All of them may be deserving but there certainly are women and African-Americans that have made notable contributions to Kentucky who merit recognition.

It behooves me to note, as a white guy, we don’t always take to heart the admonition we often give to our young’uns – share. The rotunda outside the governor’s office in the state capitol building is one of the most honored of public places and it’s time to offer up the appreciation other folks deserve.

That admittedly would omit some commendable individuals. My good friend Al Cross, who writes about the only thing worth reading in The Courier-Journal these days that doesn’t come under the byline of Tom Loftus, cited “The Great Dissenter,’’ U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, in a recent column, leading to his name being bandied about, along with Louisville-born Justice Louis Brandeis. Both men certainly are more deserving than Davis, as is former governor and senator Wendell Ford, as one friend has suggested.

But we’re meandering into white guy territory. Ford, though an admirable person, would prove particularly problematic since it ultimately would raise the question of how best to honor Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, whose duration in the upper chamber already has exceeded Ford’s tenure and who reached a higher position. Fair, as they say, is fair.

No, it’s time to expand the field. The name of Muhammad Ali has been offered in some quarters and his accomplishments as a boxer and a humanitarian are widely known – at one time he may have been the most recognized figure on the planet. But there already is a museum dedicated to his life in Louisville and, frankly, there’s an argument to be made that the nation already has gone overboard glorifying its athletes.

Still, Ali should be taken seriously, as should Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s first woman governor credited with providing opportunities for economic expansion by attracting Japanese firms to the state, including Toyota.

Regardless, to my mind, at least, there’s a better choice. Really, only one choice.

Georgia Davis Powers is 91 years old, a lifelong resident of Louisville and one of the commonwealth’s most accomplished figures in both the 20th and 21st centuries. Her story needs to be told and the best way to accomplish that is with a statute in the rotunda replacing Jefferson Davis.

Georgia Davis Powers

Georgia Davis Powers

Talk about poetic justice.

Powers was the first woman elected to the Kentucky Senate who did not succeed her husband. She was the first African-American of any gender to be elected to the chamber and the first to chair a committee – two in fact.

During her 21-year tenure, Davis was the voice for those most in need: the poor, the black, the aged, the disabled. I remember many years ago a reporter friend of mine saying how very pleased he was that Powers was serving in what had historically been a white boys club — she was willing to stand up and say things that needed to be said but were ignored by the brethren.

Her time in the Senate should be sufficient to place her in the discussion but Powers’ accomplishments extend way beyond the chamber. Powers was a bona fide civil rights leader during an era when assuming that role carried some danger and costs. She worked not just in Kentucky but throughout the South, organizing marches and protests. I remember vividly her telling me one time about participating in a garbage workers strike in Memphis when she laid down in front of the trucks driven by scabs. She fully expected to get run over. Thankfully, for the commonwealth, that didn’t happen.

In 1964, she was one of the primary organizers of what was billed as the March on Frankfort, drawing 10,000 people of all stripes, demanding passage of legislation banning discrimination in public accommodations.

Among those participating in that march was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., certainly the nation’s greatest civil rights leader before he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968. Davis became an adviser and confidante to King, and I recall her telling me that King always greeted her with a smile and proudly called her “Senator.’’ She was there with him that terrible night in Tennessee when he was killed.

And, just to get this out of the way, she also entered into what can best be described as an “intimate relationship’’ with the great man. Such liaisons occur throughout history. It hasn’t kept King from public acclaim – he has his own memorial near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. – and deservedly so. There’s no reason to exclude Powers from the honor she deserves.

It’s not going overboard to describe Georgia Davis Powers as one of the great figures of the 20th century. Her inclusion will, among other things, shine a light on what undoubtedly is one of the most dreadfully ignored subjects in recent American history – the contributions of African-American women, not only to the Civil Rights Movement but American life in general.

Powers, on top of everything else, is a published author and she’s still around to tell the story – another mark in her favor. She even contributed to the nation’s effort during WW II as the quintessential Rosie the Riveter.

What a remarkable woman.

Look, it was the great French novelist, Victor Hugo, who said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’’ The time has come to rid the rotunda of the Davis statue and replace it with the likeness of Georgia Davis Powers – state senator, civil rights activist, feminist, courageous citizen.

You might also be interested in reading ‘Take it down’ movement reaches Kentucky with calls to remove Jefferson Davis statue on the NKyTribune.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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