Government leaders in Kentucky’s second-largest city took a decisive stand Thursday night in favor of moving two Confederate statues from their prominent places outside a former courthouse being converted into a visitors center.
The proposal to relocate statues honoring Confederate officers John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge won unanimous approval from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council after nearly three hours of public testimony that overwhelmingly supported the resolution.
The action showed the city is “taking responsibility to do the right thing,” Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said.
“Confronting our history is often difficult … and uncomfortable,” Gray said. “We all know, in many ways, this war is unfinished. It did not put an end to the vicious and violent reach of unrepentant racism. An important step we can take toward finishing it means facing up to our history.”
People in the packed council room stood and applauded after the vote.
The council’s action isn’t the final word on the issue. The city still has to ask a state military heritage commission for permission.
Two days earlier, the council heard public support for moving the statues from a downtown site where slave auctions were held before the Civil War. The proposal has created some anxiety in this affluent university town after a leader of a white nationalist group signaled that Lexington’s push to move the statues could spur a demonstration.
Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard said extra officers would be present at the council meeting and in downtown Thursday night, but the overflow crowd at the meeting was civil and respectful.
The vote in Lexington comes as cities and states have accelerated their plans to remove Confederate monuments from public property in the aftermath of deadly violence over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, that pitted white nationalists against counterprotesters.
Gray led the push to relocate the two statues in Lexington’s downtown, and the resolution that cleared the council calls on the mayor to return in 30 days with a possible new location for the monuments. The issue has simmered in Lexington for years, and Gray said he had already planned to bring up the issue this week but moved up his announcement in reaction to the violence in Charlottesville.
Gray’s efforts won an endorsement from a Breckinridge descendant. Gray released a letter from J.C. Breckinridge Prewitt, who expressed his “full support” for the relocation of his ancestor’s statue to a “more appropriation location.” He did not specify a preferred site.
Sam Flora, representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans local chapter, asked that the statues stay put, saying that moving them would be “a sanitizing of the history of Lexington.” He suggested adding a monument at the same site to honor black soldiers who fought for the Union.
Flora also condemned any groups that would use the Confederate monuments “for their own extremist political agendas.”
The state military heritage commission’s next scheduled meeting is in November, but Lexington officials have said they intend to ask for a special meeting in September. The commission is an independent agency attached to the Kentucky Heritage Council.
“Any requests received will be voted on by the commissioners once they have had an opportunity for review and discussion,” the state Heritage Council said in a statement. “Until then, it would not be appropriate for any one commission member … to comment about any possible outcome.”
Lexington authorities have received no requests for permits from any group planning a rally related to the monuments debate, Barnard said. Local police will be ready if a demonstration occurs, he said.
“If they were to come to Lexington, we would plan to have an overwhelming amount of law enforcement … to ensure everyone was safe and had the right to free speech,” the chief said earlier in the week.
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.
Gray initially proposed moving the Confederate statues to a veterans’ park elsewhere in Lexington and to add Union memorials to symbolize Kentucky’s divided allegiance during the Civil War. But he backed off that location after hearing resistance from some in the community.
City officials have been contacted by a donor willing to move the statues at no expense to taxpayers, Gray said.