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Confederate Monument Decision Greeted With Cheers Thursday Night

Josh James

Lexington’s Urban County Council left no doubt where it stands on the removal of Confederate monuments from the courthouse square Thursday. After hours of impassioned pleas from more than 50 speakers, city leaders voted unanimously to find a new home for the controversial statues.

Lexington residents packed into the heavily guarded Government Center, filling overflow areas, and spilling out onto the sidewalk outside. Dozens signed up to speak, with the vast majority lining up behind relocating the memorials.

"The whole world is watching," said Rabbi David Wirtschafter. "We stand tonight – Kentuckians, Lexingtonians – and we defy forces beyond this chamber seeking to intimidate us..."

Credit Josh James / WUKY
A Lexington police officer overlooks the upper level overflow area outside council chambers ahead of the Confederate statue vote on August 27, 2017.

While a handful spoke in opposition, the council heard from a wide and diverse mix of supporters, including faith leaders, Commerce Lexington, a self-described Christian conservative, a former councilman, and a woman who described the violence she witnessed during the recent clashes in Charlottesville. With applause discouraged in the chambers, most speakers heard only delayed ovations from the crowds huddled around monitors outside.

Among the four who rose to advocate for leaving the statues in place was Burl McCoy, with a group called Morgan's Men. The organization's website describes the group as an "Association of the Descendents of the men who rode with Gen. John Hunt Morgan."

"I reject the idea that (the statues) were put up there to frighten blacks," he told the audience.

As the final vote approached, Councilman Bill Farmer had this assurance: "In Lexington, we will do with words what others have done with fists. We will take care of this."

Moments later, as the screen lit up solid green with "yes" votes, it was cheers and hugs.

"At first you see all those people and you assume it's going to be a 50/50 crowd, or a 65/35 crowd, but once the speakers got started talking and you saw the overwhelming support, it started to make me feel a lot better about there we were with the council and where we were with the community," said Russell Allen, co-founder of the Take Back Cheapside movement.

With Thursday night's decisive vote under their belts, the grassroots group now turns its sights to the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission, which must sign off on the request. The panel's next meeting is slated for November, and Mayor Jim Gray has urged the panel to fast-track the ruling.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Holly Zoller exits council chambers after speaking about the violence she says she witnessed in Charlottesville. Zoller told reporters her injuries were sustained in the crash that killed counter-protester Heather Heyer. Photo taken August 17, 2017.

If successful, Gray says the city has already secured donors willing to pay to relocate the statues of Confederate leaders John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge. Any unexpected costs could be covered by a charitable fund set up through the Bluegrass Community Foundation.

In the meantime, the city faces two big unknowns: where to move the statues and how to handle the potential blowback. Traditionalist Worker Party chairman Matthew Heimbach signaled his group's desire to rally in Lexington, though no date is known.

"That removal is a dehumanization process," Heimbach told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "There is a genocidal campaign not only against the Southern people but against Europeans around the world."

Lexington police say they have not issued any permits to the group and are coordinating with state and federal authorities to formulate a strategy should white nationalist demonstrators come to town.

"If I could give one bit of advice to everybody, don't give any time to people who promote hate, "Police Chief Mark Barnard told the audience Thursday. "Go somewhere and talk about peace. Don't show up downtown. That's what they want. They want a confrontation and that's not Lexington."

While Thursday night's vote did not attract any organized protests, Take Back Cheapside spokesman DeBraun Thomas told the city council he has received death threats as the city ramps up efforts to remove the statues near Cheapside Park.

[Note: DeBraun Thomas is an employee of WUKY.]

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.
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