By John David Dyche
It looks like the statue of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis will stay in the Kentucky Capitol. The state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 7-2 to let the rebel remain in the rotunda.
The Commission says it will add "educational context," which probably means some aesthetically dubious displays to clutter the area. Any such "context" should, at minimum, include changing the plaque on the Davis statue.
A bronze marker on the statue's base describes Davis as a "Patriot – Hero – Statesman." How can someone who took up arms against his country and presided over a rebellion that cost hundreds of thousands of lives in service of the cause of keeping human beings in slavery qualify for those particular encomiums?
The General Assembly could still act, but that is extremely unlikely after a Bluegrass Poll showed 73 percent of Kentucky voters favor leaving the Davis image where it is. No matter how unreliable past Bluegrass Polls have been, it would require more profiles in courage than Kentucky's legislature contains to move the statue against such overwhelming public sentiment.
Maybe now we have heard the last of accusations by Lost Cause loyalists that displacing Davis would somehow be "erasing history." Moving a single statue from one government building to another (either the Kentucky History Center or the Kentucky Military History Museum) hardly constitutes some sinister Stalinesque purge of the past.
Others have advocated a broader removal of Confederate imagery from public spaces. This column has only advocated relocating Davis because the Capitol rotunda is the very heart of our government and our most special civic space.
The question was never about denying our once divided state's heritage. It was always about who should have the highest places of honor in our since-united state's pantheon.
Some sought to add other statues to the current quintet, but the Commission says the rotunda floor cannot support the additional weight. So we should instead put two new sculptures on the Capitol front porch under the portico, flanking the entryway arches, and looking out over Capital Avenue.
One should be an African-American and the other a woman. There have been several good suggestions of subjects.
Such monuments would acknowledge the state’s diversity, suggest its inclusiveness, and be prominently visible at gubernatorial inaugurations and rallies (like the recent one by Confederate descendants and flag-wavers). The new statues would also greet many of the visitors to our seat of government before they encountered the newly contextualized Davis sculpture.
Kentucky should also modernize some of its other symbols to better reflect today's society. The state seal would be a good place to start.
Kentucky Revised Statute 2.020 simply says, "The seal of the Commonwealth shall have upon it the device, two (2) friends embracing each other, with the words 'Commonwealth of Kentucky' over their heads and around them the words, 'United We Stand, Divided We Fall.'"
The law does not say the friends must the white male figures – one in gentlemen’s attire the other in buckskin – that now adorn the state seal and flag, or that the friends must always be the same ones. So let's depict a more representative variety of friends on these emblems.
State law now recognizes a public holiday for not only Jefferson Davis, but also Robert E. Lee and Confederate Memorial Day. We acknowledge the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., but maybe there should also be holidays for Kentucky's ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery – which did not happen until 1976 after our initial 1865 rejection of the amendment.
The state bird also needs updating. Kentucky Revised Statute 2.080 simply says, "The native redbird, commonly known as the Kentucky cardinal (cardinalis), is the official state bird of Kentucky."
The law does not say the Kentucky cardinal must be the bright red, black-masked male. So why not give equal exposure to the beautiful buff brown female of the species in our state symbology?
With its distinguished female faculty, students, and athletes, the University of Louisville should surely incorporate a female cardinal mascot and imagery into its school spirit, too. Maybe the University of Louisville Foundation, which is obviously flush with cash, would fund a few new costumes and logos.
All these things are symbolic, but symbols obviously have substantive significance. Whether we care or like it, much of the rest of the country still considers Kentucky to be backwards in some respects.
We should by all means appropriately honor and respect our state's colorful and interesting history, good and bad, without sanitizing it. But we should also strive to show that contemporary Kentucky has transcended parts of the past that have for too long held us back.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche)
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