A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: There’s still time to do the right thing and remove symbols of country’s racist past

Imagine celebrating the bicentennial of Calloway County later this year. The official proceedings are likely to take place on the courthouse square, maybe with proud speeches, voices reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, marching bands pounding out tunes like “God Bless America.”

Flags will flutter in the breeze, including the Stars and Stripes. The state banner with the slogan “United We Stand,” will probably be visible too, along with one proclaiming Murray’s designation as Friendliest Home Town in America.

(Photo by Christine Lindner)

On that same day, there is little doubt that the Robert E. Lee memorial will be standing on the corner of Main and 4th Streets, head and shoulders above the crowd. The water fountain will be there too, below the statue, not sporting a “Whites Only” placard, but its missing message loud and clear.

Like ancient Greek statuary with missing limbs and obscured facial features, one can still picture the whole as originally conceived.

Now think about next week, when the country observes a national day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A federal holiday, MLK Day celebrates Dr. King’s courage and steadfastness in the face of racism, and honors the inspiration and vision he provided for the Civil Rights movement.

King mobilized protests, risked his life, and spoke eloquently against racism of all stripes. Applying the principles of passive resistance, he and his followers refused to fight back in the face of vicious assaults that included uniformed law enforcement, vicious attack dogs, fire hoses, and beatings intended to break bones and fracture skulls of non-violent protestors.

President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later. Some states resisted adopting it as a federal holiday, opting instead to light the candles on the cake for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose birthday, coincidentally, was January 19.

When I moved to Kentucky in 1988, a local official informed me that MLK Day was really a celebration of Lee’s birth, a kind of bait-and-switch to honor a man who betrayed his oath to the U.S. Constitution to promulgate slavery.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

What scale of justice equates the birthday of a defeated general who sought to topple the republic to that of a man who gave his life to overcome a system based on the concept of racial superiority of whites over Blacks? Yet a symbol of that oppression towers over our community every day on courthouse square.

The symbolism of the statue is inescapable, the message, loud and clear. Those who walk in its shadow are reminded who has the power in the community. And who doesn’t.

This is an important year for Calloway County. Not only are we paying tribute the County’s bicentennial; Murray State University is celebrating its centennial, and Murray Independent Schools observe its one-hundred-fiftieth birthday. What better time for the community to reject the continued oppression and arrange for the removal of the statue to an appropriately private place?

Of the upcoming County bicentennial, the Calloway County Judge Executive declared, “We want to recognize the past so that future generations can look back and be informed as to how this community has become what it is today. We want to recognize those people, businesses and organizations who have made contributions that shaped our community.” Imes said.

In the same statement as reported in the local paper on March 11 of last year, the judge also said, “The Bicentennial Celebration is meant to join each of us in this moment of great history. Let’s come together to make it a year-long celebration worth remembering for generations to come.”

The Calloway County bicentennial would be worth remembering if the statue were gone. If the judge is sincere in his wish to bring the community together, he will use his authority and get the wheels moving.

There is still time to make plans for its dignified removal. There is still time to do the right thing.

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One Comment

  1. Proud Kentuckian says:

    Fine piece, but no amount of flowing prose from Ms. Alexander will change the reality that removal of confederate statues inevitably leads to removing statues of Abraham Lincoln (Boston), Teddy Roosevelt (New York City) and many other leaders we’ve historically celebrated as Americans. Judging historic figures by today’s standards will always provide outrage fodder, but does little to move this nation forward. Citing an unnamed local official from 34 years ago to paint a state as racist while ignoring the fact that the same state elected a black Attorney General just 3 years ago in a landslide doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it? Or maybe Daniel Cameron’s politics don’t align with those who seek to use race as a political lever.

    If we’re talking about civil war statues and local officials from 1988 to frame the debate in 2022, it could simply be the demand for racism in Kentucky today exceeds the supply.

    Ken Rogers

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