Lexington, Ky., Mayor Jim Gray doesn’t have to watch footage of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend to know how divisive Confederate monuments can be.
At family reunions and holiday dinners his whole life, he has heard about his great-uncles fighting each other in the Civil War’s Battle of Shiloh. Two were on the Union’s side. One fought for the Confederacy.
Now, the 53-year-old mayor, who is white, is bracing for more controversy — and potentially worse, given the unrest in Charlottesville — after he announced plans on Saturday to move two Confederate monuments from prominent places near Lexington’s historic courthouse.
Lexington is turning the Fayette County courthouse into a center for visitors, complete with a restaurant, office space and a bourbon bar. The $30 million renovation is part of the city’s effort to position itself as a welcoming, progressive beacon of the new South, Gray said. Standing in the way of that are two statues that honor Confederate leaders — and that many see as a symbol of racism and white supremacy.
One statue honors John Hunt Morgan, the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” who owned a hemp factory and wool mill and organized the independent Lexington Rifles infantry company in 1857. A few years later, the riflemen took up arms against the Union.
At a nearby park is a statue of John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president who was kicked out of the Senate after he joined the Confederate army. He served as the last Confederate secretary of war.
If Lexington’s City Council and the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission give their approval, the statues would be placed in a nearby park honoring veterans, Gray said.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he told The Washington Post on Sunday. “But doing it right is just as important.”
Gray conceded that even doing it right can have dangerous consequences.
He announced the plans on the same day that one person was killed and many others were injured during protests sparked by Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Two state police officers were killed when a helicopter, which state police said was on its way to help with the unrest in Charlottesville, crashed on its way.
According to The Post, Charlottesville leaders decided to remove the statue earlier this year, but it remains in Emancipation Park — a park that once bore Lee’s name — pending a judge’s ruling, expected later this month.
Protesters and counterprotesters donned combat gear — some wore bicycle and motorcycle helmets and carried sticks and clubs — and fought one another on downtown streets.
The worst violence came when someone barreled a 2010 Dodge Challenger into crowds on a pedestrian mall, sending bodies flying — and then reversed at high speed, hitting even more people.
The driver, James Alex Fields, 20, had espoused Nazi ideas in high school, a former teacher told The Post. Fields was charged with second-degree murder and three counts of malicious wounding.
Gray said Lexington would have to be prepared for high tensions — and even similar protests — when it relocates its monuments.
“As a mayor, you always must be prepared,” he told The Post. “So we’ll be prepared for the pushback and for the challenge. But this is the right thing to do.”
Reverence for the Confederacy runs deep in Lexington, Gray said, but so do slavery’s scars.
Fayette County was one of the largest slaveholding counties in Kentucky, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. And the square in front of the old courthouse was once the area’s largest market for buying and selling slaves.
Of the 318,449 people who live in Fayette County, nearly 78 percent are white and 15 percent are black, according to the U.S. census.
The debate in Lexington has played out in other Southern cities, as well. Some see the statues as an innocuous part of the historical record, monuments that should be protected from revisionist history. Others say the statues represent the sin of slavery and symbolize white supremacy.
Anti-Confederate sentiment intensified after nine black churchgoers were killed on June 17, 2015, at a church in Charleston, S.C., in a racially motivated massacre.
The killer, Dylann Roof, was seen on one website holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other. The tragedy mobilized once-hesitant Southern cities to get rid of polarizing Civil War statuary.
A few days after the Charleston massacre, someone spray-painted “Black Lives matter” on Morgan’s statue in front of the Lexington courthouse. Gray said afterward that although he couldn’t condone the vandalism, “the time has come for us to reconsider our Confederate memorials.” He began having conversations with people on both sides of the statue issue.
On Sunday, he said he felt his city was ready to meet this “test of our core values.”
“There are those that respect history, as we should … but we are a welcoming, caring, giving city which respects all people. This decision is about our aspirations of what Lexington can be.”