As Confederate Monument Protests Persist, Advocates Plan March On Civil Rights Anniversary
The rays of sunrise begin to glow above the storefronts in the downtown court square in Murray on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago, and Sherman Neal has lost track of time. It’s 4:53 a.m.
“I have been out here five hours at this point, started heading this way around midnight,” said Neal, who sparked calls to remove a Confederate monument on county courthouse grounds in publishing an open letter. “I did not think I was going to be at the statue at 2 a.m….even on June 1 when I published [the letter], I thought this would be done by July 1.”
The Murray State University football coach stood by the Confederate monument throughout the night as a part of a 24-hour protest planned by advocates calling for the removal of the monument, which features a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. But Neal wasn’t alone.
Other protesters, several of them Murray State students, joined Neal in shifts throughout the night bringing along water bottles, snacks, a speaker to play music, and chalk to etch drawings of Breonna Taylor, a burning Confederate flag, and the names of Black people killed in recent years.
This protest was just a part of six straight weekends of protests at the monument, bringing both those who want to see the monument’s relocation and those who want it to stay. The demonstrations have continued since the Calloway County Fiscal Court in mid-July unanimously passed a resolution stating the monument would stay on county property.
And for Sherman, the continual protests are about showing the county elected officials that advocates aren’t dropping the issue. But the protests have also evolved since he stood alone in publishing the open letter.
“I think the question changes from, ‘Am I willing to persist,’ to ‘Are we willing,’ at this point in time, because frankly, I didn't come here with a single piece of chalk, a single sign, a single water bottle,” Neal said. “I came here to participate in a movement that’s definitely grown past me.”
Advocates now have planned for Friday evening a march to the monument to read a speech by civil rights leader John Lewis and other writing about the monument, on the anniversary of the March on Washington. And as the protests have continued, these gatherings have brought out new conversations by new people, bringing a wider swath of the community into the discussion of what should happen with Robert E. Lee.
Even with the demonstrations being largely peaceful between protesters and counter-protesters, these gatherings have also brought out tensions and at times violence and criminal charges into the mix. But advocates plan to persist at this march and in future weeks, in part because they feel like they have no other choice.
“What Is There To Be Done?”
In 2017, a separate push to address what to do with the monument began with a small meeting in a Murray park, centered on the idea that those in attendance didn’t like the idea of the Robert E. Lee statue on public property.
But Murray resident Shelly Baskin who helped organize that meeting said it was disrupted by protesters wanting the monument to remain, and at one point that year, a crowd of at least 80 people had gathered inside a county fiscal court meeting to support the monument’s location.
During that past effort, Baskin said he reached out to the Murray chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to talk about the future of the monument. But he said the organization subsequently declined a meeting with advocates.
The county fiscal court in its July 2020 resolution states the court has no reason to refute an ownership claim of the monument by the local UDC chapter, and Judge-Executive Kenny Imes told WKMS he wants to see removal advocates and the chapter come together on an agreement about the monument.
Baskin, who’s helped organize recent protest efforts, said the UDC chapter hasn’t responded to their requests for a dialogue in recent months, comparing what happened in 2017.
“I think the fact that we’re still out there showing up and saying ‘Yes, there is something to talk about,’ should be enough to get them to the table,” Baskin said. “But if the fiscal court is not going to do anything, and the UDC is not going to do anything, then what is there to be done?”
Baskin said that leaves few options for advocates other than to persist with public protests, though he said advocates do want to have other events including community forums on the monument in the future. And he believes the fiscal court deferring to the UDC is a delay tactic to take away responsibility from the monument.
“It is disingenuous, and it’s really disrespectful to us to think we don’t understand that, to think that we as a movement do not realize that this is still the fiscal court’s responsibility,” Baskin said. “The UDC, I would be happy to work with them, and I’m sure everybody would, to get this done. But the UDC is not the person that has the right to make that decision. It is the fiscal court.”
Imes in a statement Wednesday said the fiscal court has never said they don’t have the power to move the monument themselves, but that they passed the July resolution because of the perception that the majority of Calloway County residents want the monument to stay. Imes also said he had spoken with members of the UDC chapter since the resolution, and that he perceived from his conversations with them that they supported the monument staying.
“I can understand why the ladies of the UDC, as private citizens, might be reluctant to step into the limelight of this dispute. Certainly anything they would say on the subject would be newsworthy, and I doubt any of them joined the organization with that in mind. As to moving forward without UDC involvement, it would understandably make the path more difficult,” Imes said. “I would suggest that, assuming the ladies of the UDC would prefer to avoid public notoriety, the advocates for removal attempt communication with them in such a way that they would not be brought into the matter more publicly than they have thus far.”
WKMS has attemped several times through multiple channels to reach members of the local UDC for comment, without success.
District 4 County Magistrate Paul Rister in an interview this week said he would most likely reach out to UDC members in his district about starting a dialogue with removal advocates, as he believes that could be helpful in this situation.
“I would just hope I could reason with [the UDC] why they need to continue the conversation because basically, that’s what the resolution was hoping for, so that we can have some conversations. It wasn’t necessarily kicking the can down the road,” Rister said. “There’s a need on both sides to kind of take a deep breath. Don’t take guns. Don’t spray people with water. Be friendly. Be nice. Everyone’s got an opinion, and it needs to be addressed in a civil manner.”
Rister referenced reports that some demonstrators have brought guns to protests, and how a social media post appeared to show a man spraying water on protesters earlier this month. Murray Police Department Sergeant Andrew Wiggins said the department had requested the man be charged with a violation of harassment, but County Attorney Bryan Ernstberger sent back the request Thursday to the department because it lacked probable cause for the charge.
One man was charged for assault in June for allegedly macing protesters. Despite the tension and at times violence, the monument gatherings between protesters and counter-protesters have largely been peaceful.
Rister said he made his vote on the July resolution solely based on a survey he conducted of residents in his district, and that he would have to ask his constituents again their thoughts to potentially reconsider his decision on the monument.
Meanwhile as the protests continue, the conversation about the monument has expanded. People have written letters to the editor and columns to the local newspaper. Murray State student organizations have gotten involved in the issue as the university has brought back students for the semester. And a series of videos made by community members for social media have addressed the statue.
In early August, Murray faith leaders also gave their input through a public statement calling for the statue’s removal.
“What's so sad about it, those type of images have been up there for as long as I can remember. I have some people older than me in the congregation, and that thing was up there when they were small,” said Timothy Davis, Pastor of Greater Hope Missionary Baptist Church, who signed the statement. “I can't understand how anybody who says that they’re Christian would want to leave such a hateful sign right in the middle of town.”
Davis, 41, leads a predominantly Black congregation of about 60 people in Murray, and currently lives in Paris, Tennessee, where he grew up. He said he supports younger protesters out at the monument, and felt that signing the statement was his way of showing support for the protests.
But he also worries for the future of the protests with past tensions between protesters and counter-protesters. As a Black man, he worries about his children and how they may be treated amid conversations about racial injustice sweeping the country.
“I could not believe that there was people up there guarding that statue with guns,” Davis said. “When people can come to a protest, and you have police on all four corners, it's pretty serious. You never see police really show up at a place where there's no potential for danger.”
Despite those concerns for the future, Davis said he’s making plans to be at the march Friday evening. He said the faith community needs to rely on each other to make change, and not just on politicians.
“There’s not many people who are gonna stand and say something when it comes to injustice, but anytime you back people in the corner, they get tired of being treated like that. And out of that arrives what we have now,” he said.