State panel gives public 30 days to comment on Jefferson Davis statue as NAACP, head of black caucus weigh in

06/25/2015 07:36 PM

FRANKFORT — The public has about 30 days to offer their thoughts on removing a 15-foot marble statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, after the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission set a special Aug. 5 meeting to reconsider its place in the Capitol Rotunda.

A number of Kentucky politicians have called for the removal of Davis’ likeness, placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1936 and funded through private donations and a $5,000 state appropriation, from the space that includes a cast bronze rendering of former President Abraham Lincoln, his adversary in the Civil War.

Steven Collins, chairman of the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, said during the panel’s Thursday meeting that public comments on the statue will be taken until July 29, after which the commission will hold a special meeting to discuss the Capitol Rotunda statues and any recommended changes to the panel’s guidelines on displays in the space.

David Buchta, state curator, said public comments can be sent to his office email, david.buchta@ky.gov, as the Division of Historic Properties creates a comment section on its website, www.historicproperties.ky.gov.

After the meeting, Collins said the commission is moving quickly to discuss Davis’ place in the Capitol Rotunda after a gunman killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church during Bible study.

The accused triggerman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, has been charged with nine counts of murder in the racially charged shooting.

Roof’s alleged actions have prompted a national debate on the trappings and symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the rebel battle flag that flies on the Capitol grounds in South Carolina and holds a prominent spot on Mississippi’s state flag.

“We’re trying to treat this with a sense of urgency … because there’s a lot of public interest in it, and we want the public to know we’re very serious about weighing all of the criteria and addressing the concerns,” Collins said.

Concerns about the marble rendering of Davis have been aired years before the tragedy in Charleston, however.

State Rep. Reginald Meeks, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, and Raoul Cunningham, president of the NAACP Kentucky State Conference, say unsuccessful efforts to relocate Davis’ statue began in 2003.

Reaction to news that Davis’ statue may be removed ranges from outrage that it exists in the Capitol at all to apathy among his constituents, said Meeks, D-Louisville.

But for him, the statue elicits strong emotions.

“It confuses me because here’s a man who basically was committing treason, treason against this government, against this country, yet we would honor him despite that treasonous behavior,” Meeks told Pure Politics after attending Thursday’s meeting. “I think here’s a man who clearly was about destroying the country as we knew it; here’s a man who was about maintaining a status quo that kept millions of individuals in bondage.”

Despite his misgivings about the Davis statue, Meeks says those who say symbols of the Confederacy are part of America’s history “have a point.” Those who are concerned that those same trappings have been adopted by racist groups “need to speak out against those individuals and those groups who would take their symbols and misappropriate them or use them for evil or hatred,” he said.

John Suttles, division commander of the state Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, declined to comment for this report out of respect for the funerals of those slain in Charleston.

The Kentucky group has an anti-hate statement on its website, condemning “in the strongest terms possible” the misuse of Confederate paraphernalia by those “who espouse political extremism or racial superiority.”

Removal of the Davis statue is just one item on the NAACP’s to-do list in Kentucky. Cunningham said he was late attending Thursday’s meeting because the group had been dissuading the Kentucky State Fair Board from selling Confederate products at this year’s state fair.

“I think one of the things that we need to have is a real dialogue of race in America, race in Kentucky and to have an in-depth dialogue,” Cunningham said. “Not only a dialogue, but we’ve got to come to some understanding of what race has done or is doing even today.”

Cunningham believes the state should look at the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, which recognizes the Confederate president’s birthplace in Fairview and features a 351-foot obelisk, and other such state parks that offer products bearing the Confederate emblem.

The Fairview historic site’s budget totaled $146,242 in the current fiscal year and has drawn 20,025 visitors since July 1, according to figures provided by Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet spokesman Gil Lawson.

“Should the state be selling Confederate material?” Cunningham asked.

Meeks, however, said the park could be a spot to relocate Davis’ statue. Others have called for the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History to serve as the marble rendering’s new home.

He noted that an African-American manages the site, which he said could facilitate a deeper discussion on race. He also called the park “an economic driver” to its local community in western Kentucky.

“I’m thinking, and I think that a number of my colleagues are believing, that as a historical figure, that may be a more appropriate location for the display of this particular statue,” Meeks said.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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