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Debate Over Confederate Symbols Erupts In Kentucky


Kentucky's second-largest city forged ahead Tuesday with plans to remove two Confederate statues as the state's Republican governor warned such actions would set a dangerous precedent of "pretending our history is not our history."

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council gave initial approval on a voice vote Tuesday to move the statues of Confederate officers John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge to an undetermined location. The vote came days after three people died in connection with violent protests at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When asked Tuesday morning by a WVHU radio host if he supported removing Confederate symbols off government property, Gov. Matt Bevin said no because he disagreed with the "sanitization of history."

Bevin later confirmed those comments to reporters at the state Capitol, comparing it to what the Islamic State group does "with the destruction of any kind of history or a different culture when they move into a new territory."

"I think it is a very dangerous precedent to pretend that your history is not your history," Bevin said. "That doesn't mean you have to embrace it. It doesn't mean you agree with it or even like it. But to pretend it does not exist, to remove it from the landscape of discussion and the ability to learn from (it) is a very dangerous proposition."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray disagreed, telling reporters: "We're absolutely not sanitizing and we're not destroying. We're putting these statues in the proper context out of the center of the city, where they're being glorified today."

Bevin seemed to contradict his 2015 stance, when as the GOP nominee for governor he was one of the first Republicans to call for removing a Jefferson Davis statue from the rotunda of the state Capitol.

"It is important never to forget our history, but parts of our history are more appropriately displayed in museums, not on government property," Bevin said at the time, less than a week after nine people were murdered in a racially-motivated attack at an African-American church in South Carolina.

Tuesday, Bevin said the fate of statues like the one in Lexington should be decided by the local community, adding he would "be supportive of the will of the people on this."

Asked if he still supports removing the Davis statue from the Capitol, Bevin said: "Hatred and bigotry has no place whatsoever in Kentucky." Asked a second time about Confederate monuments in general, he said: "What I am saying today is what I believe, and that is that this is a dangerous precedent." Asked a third time, he said the decision is in the hands of a state commission that governs historic properties.

Kentucky's Capitol rotunda includes five statues of native Kentuckians, including Abraham Lincoln, who signed the emancipation proclamation, and Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy. A plaque on Davis' statue identifies him as a "patriot - hero - statesman." The statue, unveiled in 1936, was erected by the state with the help of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The statues of Morgan and Breckinridge are on the lawn of the former courthouse in Lexington. Morgan was a Confederate general and slave owner. Breckinridge was a U.S. vice president under James Buchanan and the last Confederate Secretary of War.

Tuesday's council vote to begin the process of moving the statues was preliminary. The proposal, which could come up for further council action Thursday, also calls for Gray to return to the council in 30 days with a possible new location for the statues.

Even with council approval, the city would still have to ask a state military heritage commission for permission.

For more than an hour, council members heard public comments about the statues, with most advocating to move them.

"In reality, they were traitors, insurrectionists who sought to subjugate an entire race of people because of the color of their skin," Josh Hicks told the council.

Others, like Ross Overby, disagreed.

"We do better by adding to history, not hiding it," he said.

The leader of a white nationalist group said they are planning a community organizing campaign in Lexington. Matthew Heimbach, chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, said the campaign would not solely focus on the removal of the statues but also "white working class areas on economic and social justice."

Bevin said Tuesday he would continue to call out racism and bigotry "for the heinous stance that it is, regardless of what corner it comes from."

"People can pretend there is not two sides. There is people who are hateful of people based on their color on all sides of the color spectrum. It's unacceptable," he said.

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