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Constance Alexander: Waiting for Godot is no substitute for visionary leadership

For some, the presence of the monument itself offends. Others are vexed with the likeness of Robert E. Lee. Another affront is the water fountain beneath the General, conjuring up the specter of a “Whites Only” sign. The location also raises a fundamental question: If the courthouse is a symbol of liberty and justice for all, how can a memorial of racial oppression continue to hold a place of honor on the same plot of public land?

The monument to Confederate soldiers in Calloway County was originally commissioned in 1913, the same year the cornerstone of the courthouse was dedicated. Five-thousand people attended the ceremony and Rainey T. Wells, who later would found Murray State University, presented the celebratory speech.

The proceedings were front-page news.

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The day after, a local African American family was burned out of their home because white neighbors objected to their presence. It was not the first attempt to drive the family away, and the ignominious act was documented in a two-inch space on page 6 of the local paper.

Six days later, on March 15, 1913, the local J.N. Williams Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy contracted with McNeel Marble Company of Georgia regarding the purchase and placement of the Robert E. Lee statue on the courthouse grounds in Murray. Since 1916, the statue has been part of the public landscape.

In 1986, when the courthouse was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the application cited the monument was noteworthy, “because it is the only Confederate monument in the South that does not face square north.”

In addition, it was deemed historically significant for its association with the “Lost Cause” movement, an attempt to deal with the reality of the Confederate defeat.

“During Reconstruction,” the application declared, “a new myth had emerged in the South to reconcile the reality of defeat with the wartime belief that the Confederacy was divinely sanctioned…With the Lost Cause,” it continued, “Southerners were able to accept the Confederacy’s defeat (reconciling themselves with the Union) while still being able to honor their Confederate Veterans as heroes.”

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.

Today, in the aftermath of tragedies like the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, and the fatal shooting by law enforcement of Breonna Taylor in Louisville – and a history of racial injustice that dates back to 1619 — a new Civil Rights movement has emerged. Protests and demonstrations are raising awareness, and one result has been the removal of monuments honoring the Confederacy, including the statue of Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky state Capitol on June 13.

On June 25, 2020, the Murray City Council unanimously voted to recommend that the Calloway County Fiscal Court relocate the statue to an appropriate local venue. Three weeks later, the Court unanimously passed Resolution 20-0715-C, declaring the monument “shall remain standing upon the Northeast corner of the grounds of the Calloway County Courthouse for so long as the owners of that Monument and the citizens of Calloway County are inclined.”

One might hope that a community known as “The Friendliest Small Town in America” – home to a university, a regional museum, an active community theatre, art galleries, a local art guild, some of the best public schools in the commonwealth, and an array of distinguished artists in all disciplines – could unite to address the issue and bring the community together for informed dialogue.

Faith leaders have stepped forward to support relocating the monument, and the First Christian Church has initiated a series of films and discussions under the title “America’s ‘Original Sin’: Sharing Stories about Race in America.” In addition, individual civic and arts groups are seeking to address issues of racial and economic injustice, including the Calloway County Public Library, recipient of a Kentucky Oral History Commission grant to document the history of the Black community and Douglass School, Murray’s Black high school before desegregation.

So far, County leadership appears to be waiting for Godot.

Examples of other communities’ initiatives abound in the news and online. The national non-profit, Americans for the Arts, provides listings of resources and examples of programs in progress that pave a path to community engagement and fostering reconciliation. For more information, go to www.americansforthearts.org.

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