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Council Unanimous: Confederate Statues Should Move

Josh James
Close-up of Mayor Jim Gray's seat in the center of the Urban County Council horseshoe following a public meeting on the fate of two Confederate statues on August 15, 2017.

Lexington’s Urban County Council has taken the first step toward relocating two Confederate-era monuments from the heart of the city.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
The memorial to Confederate General and former Vice President of the United States John C. Breckinridge greets visitors to Lexington's Cheapside Park on August 14, 2017.

"Please indicate by saying aye... oppose no... motion carries."

With those words, the mayor - and a unanimous council – set in motion the process for removing statues of Confederate leaders John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge from the old Fayette Courthouse square. The 15-0 vote came after nearly 90 minutes of passionate public comment, with those favoring removal outnumbering opponents by more than four to one.

For many, the mayor and city's response to the recent violent clashes between white supremacist groups and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia were a source of pride, though several speakers reminded the audience that the eyes of the nation are now on Lexington.

"Moving these statues to give them deeper and broader historical context is to build on what we know to be true and on the values that are essential to a just an civil society," said the first speaker, Transylvania President Seamus Carey. "It is not to obliterate the past, but to learn from it."

Of the more than 25 speakers, a handful expressed opposition or reservations about moving one or both of the bronze memorials from their familiar spots near the old courthouse, which is currently undergoing extensive renovations.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Citizens pack council chambers at the Government Center to weigh in on Mayor Jim Gray's request to relocate two Confederate statues downtown. Photo taken August 15, 2017.

"We do better by adding to our history, not hiding it," said Ross Overman. "Where does this end? Jefferson, Washington. We can't erase the history of those men as slave-owners.

The 15-0 vote is only a first step. The issue now heads to the Thursday docket and, if granted final approval, on to a state military commission.

"I'm very happy that Lexington is moving forward with this," said Rev. Anthony Everett, part of a strong showing of faith leaders who took their message to the podium at the meeting. "We want to move beyond and be a community that is loving and together."

Yet the decision still leaves many questions unanswered, including where the statues should go. Gray had floated the idea of moving them to Veteran’s Park, but that option proved unpopular with some speakers at Tuesday’s meeting.

The vote also arrived amid reports that a white nationalist group is planning to rally in Lexington.

Credit AP Photo/Steve Helber
Matthew Heimbach, center, voices his displeasure at the media after a court hearing for James Alex Fields Jr., in front of court in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Aug. 14, 2017.

Bracing For What's Next

Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard says his department is partnering with state and federal authorities ahead of a possible white nationalist rally in the city.

Reports that the Traditionalist Worker Party is planning to rally have residents worried Lexington be the next Charlottesville. The Urban County Council heard from those concerns at their Tuesday work session.

"I beg that this council devote adequate resources and thought to prevent these outside groups from disrupting our peaceful community and ensuring to the extent possible that they are denied permits to incite violence in our streets," one speaker urged at Tuesday's council meeting.

If the group, or others like it, march in Lexington, Police Chief Mark Barnard says Louisville Metro police and state police have agreed to provide backup.  

"We would plan to have an overwhelming amount of law enforcement to greet anyone to ensure everyone was safe and had the right to free speech," he told reporters. "That's our role in Lexington."

Barnard reported no new intelligence on when the rally might happen, but the Lexington Herald-Leader quoted Traditionalist Worker Party chairman Matthew Heimbach as saying “sooner rather than later.”

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.