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Bill Straub: Georgia Davis Powers represents all that should be celebrated by a statue in Capitol Rotunda

Unless you’re a devotee of Turner Classic Movies – I plead guilty – you’ve probably never come across Judge Priest, a 1934 film starring Will Rogers and directed by the American master, John Ford, who, a year before his passing, said it was his favorite movie.

Based on the writings of Paducah native Irvin S. Cobb, Judge Priest takes place in an unidentified Western Kentucky town sometime around 1890 and focuses on the whimsical figure of Judge Billy Priest, who eventually winds up defending the town misanthrope, Bob Gillis, in a court of law on the charge of assault.

Said misanthrope is acquitted, not because he was innocent – Gillis did attack his victim – but because Priest revealed to the jury that he was a hero of the great “War for the Southern Confederacy,” on the rebel side, of course, and deserved to be honored, not convicted.

The film ends with a Memorial Day parade with the participants – including Priest and Gillis – marching behind the stars and bars as the band plays “Dixie.”

Judge Priest was one of the most popular films produced that year. One critic of recent vintage described it this way:

“A laconic, gentry led backwater full of Southern ideals where the struggle of the Confederacy is idealized and celebrated and a town where a love of fishing, a tale of gallantry or the playing ‘Dixie’ outside of a courtroom can swing a jury in a man’s favor. A place where white men and singing Negroes happily co-exist as if the civil war never really changed anything anyway!”

Georgia Powers

Judge Priest and other films that followed, like Gone with the Wind, were nothing but a whitewashing – literally – of the post-bellum South, which includes Kentucky in the minds of most people. They portrayed a gracious existence where the Lost Cause was beatified and people knew their place, and we all know what that means.

A lot of people have clung to that depiction of a way of life – a lie – in modern times to justify their allegiance to a failed rebellion against the republic, an insurgency fueled by a desire to maintain a certain people in servitude.

The Black Lives Matter movement has blown all that to smithereens, forcing the nation to finally trade empty words for action. The death of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of Minneapolis police has struck a chord and sparked nationwide protests that seem to finally be leading to a legitimate re-evaluation of race issues in this country.

Kentucky, with a comparably small African-American population of about 8.3 percent, compared to the national average of 13.4 percent, is nonetheless among the states looking to address the multitude of problems. The commonwealth has experienced its own obvious issues – Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman, was gunned down while laying in her bed by Louisville police who entered on a no-knock warrant, sending thousands to the streets.

What’s fascinating is where some of these protests took place. There was a demonstration involving about 300 people in Marshall County, which has a white population of about 97.7 percent and in the not-so-distant past boasted no African-American residents. And then there’s Corbin, which, in a state not known for its positive or progressive race relations, is the worst of the worst. It was here, in 1919, that a white mob expelled almost the entire African-American population of 200 from the city after a white resident was allegedly attacked by two Black men.

That town was the site earlier this month of a peaceful demonstration with about 100 protesters.

And the state is getting involved, this time, hopefully, for real. Four years ago, after a shooting in a Charleston, SC, church basement by an avowed racist that left nine African-Americans dead, the Commonwealth did a little soul searching, sparking a discussion about ejecting the statue of Jefferson Davis, the Kentucky-born president of the short-lived Confederate States of America that has been in the rotunda of the state Capitol – along with Abe Lincoln and three others – for decades.

That campaign fizzled out. But last week, under the direction of Gov. Andy Beshear, the statue was unceremoniously removed and dispatched to the community of Fairview, which shares a boundary with Todd and Christian counties, Davis’ birthplace and the home of the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site, leaving it for someone else to deal with.

Now the debate begins over a possible replacement in the rotunda. It should honor a woman or, under the circumstances, an African-American or perhaps both. Suggestions are flowing in.

There is some support for former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, the first and thus far only woman to hold the state’s top position. I covered her administration from 1983 to 1987 and was often critical. Our relationship was, it’s fair to say, icy. But there’s no doubt that the governor who brought Toyota to Kentucky and pushed for education reform would be more than deserving.

Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, is getting behind Alice A. Dunnigan, from Russellville, a pioneering African-American journalist. Muhammad Ali is, understandably, often mentioned, as is Mary Carson Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service.

My preference, as I voiced in a July 2, 2015 column, is the late Georgia Davis Powers, who was both the first Black person and first woman elected to the state senate in Kentucky. She also happens to be from Louisville, the Commonwealth’s largest and most renowned city which remains unrepresented in the rotunda.

Permit me to repeat myself from four years ago:

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist 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. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

“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.”

I could go on but you get the point. The Commonwealth is removing a symbol of racism. Georgia Davis Powers represents all that Davis does not. If someone can come up with a decent argument in opposition, I’d sure like to hear it.

Regardless, earlier efforts to champion justice in the name of civil rights have sadly run out of steam at some point. This movement has a different feel to it, thanks in large measure to a younger generation that seems to have reached a stage where they won’t buckle under the strain.
It was Rev. Jesse Jackson who often charged crowds with the chant “Keep hope alive.’’ Hopefully it will survive this time.

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  1. Jerry Smith says:

    So a non-Kentuckian tells us Kentuckians we’re all racists, and that the statute of Jefferson Davis is racist (and does it with enough typos to make the New York Times look like a competent newspaper). Meanwhile, the statue should be replaced not with a worthy recipient, but just with anyone-but-a-white-male. The Tribune isn’t known for objective news, but this really takes the cake. I’d make some suggestions, but I’m sure Bill Straub would dismiss them as racist, from his Maryland bunker. How is this helping our current troubles, exactly?

  2. ruth bamberger says:

    Thanks, Bill, for the comments about the film Judge Priest. Even today, the Old South isn’t dead, but has certainly gotten a punch in the stomach with the George Floyd killing…. I recently read KENTUCKY WOMEN: TWO CENTURIES OF INDOMITABLE SPIRIT AND VISION, edited by Eugenia Potter. We have many fine choices of women, black and white, worthy of a place in the rotunda. For so long we have only honored war and political “heroes” (mostly men’s domain) and failed to recognize the contributions women have made to improve the lives of people. I welcome your suggestion of Georgia Davis Powers because she “made it to the Senate”, and more importantly worked on behalf of the have nots in society.

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