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Billy Reed: Historic properties folks still haven’t said what statue will replace Davis; should be Ali

It was on June 11 when the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 11-1 to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, from the Kentucky state capitol rotunda. (The lone vote against was Brandon T. Wilson who said the issue was being politicized and that he wasn’t there to remove history but to protect it.)

The Commonwealth received much national and regional praise for doing something that should have been done years ago. Davis, a graduate of Transylvania College (now University), was the leader of the southern states that seceded from the Union in order to defend their right to own slaves.

The statue was quickly removed, leaving a gaping hole in the rotunda. A statue of Abraham Lincoln remains in the center, as it should. The other three statues are dedicated to Alben Barkley, vice-president to President Harry Truman; statesman Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” in Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War; and Dr. Ephraim McDowell, who performed the first ovarian cancer surgery, along with other pioneering procedures, from his office in Danville.

Muhammad Ali

But today I’m wondering why the Historic Properties Advisory Commission is taking so long to pick a replacement statue for Davis. It should be the easiest decision the members ever have to make because there’s only one candidate:

Muhammad Ali.

The Louisville native used his forum as world heavyweight boxing champion to become one of the world’s most charismatic and beloved spokesman against racism and the immoral war in Vietnam. Wherever he appeared around the world, he drew massive crowds, often more than 100,000, to see him, hear him, and shower him with adulation.

Naïve at the time he won the world championship from Sonny Liston, Ali succumbed to the recruiting methods of Elijah Muhammad, head of the militant Black Muslims. But they only wanted to use Ali for their own purposes. When Ali’s friend Malcolm X broke away and started a more moderate sect, the Black Muslims murdered him. That frightened Ali to the point that he didn’t leave until Elijah Muhammad’s death. He then began to re-invent himself as a man of love and peace.

He is, hands down, the most famous Kentuckian ever. A distant second might be Col. Harland Sanders, whose Kentucky Fried Chicken is savored around the world. But with his white suit black stringed tie, Sanders mostly calls to mind a southern plantation owner, an image that should disqualify him from ever having a rotunda statue in his honor.

Naturally, there would be some opposition to putting a statue of Ali in the rotunda. Much of white America will never forgive him for joining the Black Muslims and renouncing his Christian name of Cassius M. Clay Jr. (Back in the Civil War era, another Cassius M. Clay, also known as the “Lion of White Hall,” was a fiery supporter of abolishing slavery.)

But despite the controversy that’s certain to come, the Historic Properties Advisory Commission must do the right thing and recommend to Gov. Andy Beshear that a statue of Ali would replace the one of Jefferson Davis. Would that be delicious irony or what? The international and national media would be certain to heap praise on the Commonwealth.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

I wouldn’t stop there. The statue of a woman should replace Clay, McDowell, or Barkley. Each richly deserves to be remembered and honored for his vast contributions to Kentucky and the nation. But young women passing through the rotunda need to see the statue of a woman.

I would keep Barkley, a native Kentuckian who stood resolutely beside Truman during one of the most historic and challenging times in U.S. history. Known as “The Veep,” the native of Paducah gets the edge over both Clay and McDowell, who were natives of Virginia. Of those two, Clay is much better known, but I’d argue that McDowell’s contributions to medicine were more significant to society than anything Clay did in the political arena.

So, what female should replace Clay?

There are many candidates from a variety of fields. Some of the most significant:

Willa Brown, the first African-American female licensed to fly an airplane in the U.S.; Mary C. Breckinridge, founder of the Frontier Nursing Service; Catherine Spalding, founder of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth; Loretta Lynn, country music icon; Martha Layne Collins, the first – and still the only – female Governor of Kentucky; and Mary T. Meagher, one of the greatest Olympic swimmers ever.

My personal pick would be Loretta, for all she’s done to entertain worldwide audiences and relentlessly promote Kentucky, but I certainly can live with any of them – and many more.

But the first item of business is having a statue of Ali replace Jefferson Davis. If Kentucky picks someone else, it will open the Commonwealth to charges of being anti-black and anti-Muslim. That’s the last thing we need at this particular time in our nation’s history.

So let’s get hopping, you members of the Historic Properties Advisory Commission (including the one who voted to keep Davis in the rotunda). There’s no earthly reason to wait. This is the no-brainer of all no-brainers. If the commission doesn’t select Ali, it might as well move out all the statues and replace them with Kentucky Fried Chicken booths.

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One Comment

  1. Linda Anderkin says:

    Ali was a draft dodger when the country needed him the most.

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