Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes said this week there’s no set timeline for action regarding recent calls to remove a Confederate monument on county courthouse grounds in downtown Murray, though he said county government is committed to addressing the issue.
Yet, a leading advocate for removal says he's concerned the fiscal court is delaying action on this monument.
“The biggest thing, I don’t want the county to think that we’re putting off anything,” said Imes in an interview after a special-called fiscal court meeting on Tuesday. “The court is working around the clock with legal minds, public minds, Murray State minds. I mean, we're just trying to get it distilled down to where we are.”
The Confederate monument features a statue with the likeness of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and was installed on courthouse grounds in 1917 with funding from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
During a monthly Calloway County Fiscal Court meeting on June 17, the fiscal court allowed only two people to speak on the monument — one advocating for the removal of the monument, and another opposing the removal — because of coronavirus restrictions limiting the number of people inside the county judicial building.
After both speakers finished, Imes said the fiscal court would not be making any decision on the monument, citing unspecified “legal issues” and permissions the county had to work through before taking action.
During the Tuesday interview, Imes said the legal issues he referenced primarily involve who owns the monument and the procedures involved with potential removal. He added the land beneath the monument was county property.
“I can’t go out there and sell your car and transfer your car. So, we got to be assured of ownership,” Imes said. “If we do own it, then all the procedures and necessary hurdles you have to get through to get everybody else’s position that have some interest in it.”
He said the fiscal court still has not stated any stance regarding whether to remove the monument.
County Attorney Bryan Ernstberger during a Thursday interview said documentation regarding the monument provides conflicting information on ownership, which complicates the decision-making process for a potential removal.
An application registering the monument as a military heritage object with the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission states the monument is privately owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy; the nomination form to include the monument in the National Register of Historic Places states the monument was a “gift to the county by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
“If the county owns it, then the county for the most part, you know, subject to permissions that they might have to obtain, could do what they wanted to,” Ernstberger said. “If the U.D.C. or even some other entity — if they own it — then we’re going to get into whether or what agreement was made or what real property interest might have been given to them for the placement of the statue, and that’s going to be a much more complicated issue.”
Ernstberger last week told WKMS he wasn’t able to start on researching the ownership of the monument because of work on other legal questions posed to his office, including the implementation of a recently approved county transient tax. He said on Thursday he had started on determining ownership of the statue.
“So now, where I’m at is just starting to really review documents from back in 1917,” Ernstberger said. “The fiscal court would have taken some action to accept the statue if it was a gift or give some formal, or informal, right to the U.D.C. if they still owned it to put it on public property.”
Ernstberger said documentation from the early 20th century isn’t well organized, making finding relevant documents like “digging for a needle in a haystack.” When asked about policies regarding how the monument would be potentially removed, Ernstberger said he hadn’t reviewed any policy regarding removal because he’s still determining ownership.
Unclear Steps Forward
Despite Imes’ assertion the county is still working toward a resolution regarding the monument, one leading removal advocate and Murray State Assistant Football Coach Sherman Neal says a lack of transparency and communication from the county government on the issue is reducing confidence the county will ultimately take action.
On Tuesday, Imes issued a statement saying the county “remains committed” to addressing concerns regarding the Robert E. Lee statue within the bounds of the law.
“When dealing with any property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, multiple stakeholders and governmental entities have to become involved in the process of dealing with the property,” Imes said in the statement. “No one or governmental organization, unilaterally, has the legal ability to do anything to or with the property. This is true if a property or time is to be restored, removed or even cleaned.”
The Frequently Asked Questions section on the National Register of Historic Places website states “the listing of a property in the National Register places no restrictions on what a non-federal owner may do with their property up to and including destruction,” as long as the property isn’t involved with a project using federal assistance.
Imes previously said the fiscal court would need permission from the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission to potentially remove the monument. The commission’s website states failure to get written consent from the commission before destroying, damaging, removing, or significantly altering a military heritage object could result in a misdemeanor.
For Sherman Neal — a Murray State University Assistant Football Coach, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, attorney, and the person who began recent calls for removal — the statement issued by Imes doesn’t instill confidence regarding the possibility of swift action.
“He’s served a substantial amount of time in public office, and he's going to have to make a decision on what he wants his legacy to be,” Neal said, referring to Imes. “I've never said what decision you shall make. I've always said this is a demand to make a decision. Here is the platform. These are the actions that I'm going to take.”
Neal on Thursday also said if ownership of the monument was an issue, he would have expected the fiscal court to discuss ownership during the June 17 fiscal court meeting and would have invited a representative of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to speak on the matter.
Earlier this week, Neal sent a letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, calling for Cameron to expedite action on the monument. “I am concerned by the indifference and inaction displayed by the elected officials of Calloway County,” he wrote in part.
Following the June 17 fiscal court meeting, Deputy-Judge Executive Gina Winchester said the county was still working on the issue, citing county employees gathering public opinion through phone calls received by the county office.
An informal tally of those in support of removal and those opposed was created from calls received — 350 people wanting to keep the monument next to the courthouse, and 288 wanting to remove the monument, according to Assistant County Attorney David Perlow.
Yet, employees with the county attorney’s office and the judge-executive’s office expressed doubt the tally was a valid representation of public opinion on the statue, with many callers from out-of-state and no way to determine the authenticity of callers’ residencies.
Imes during his Tuesday interview also raised doubts about the usefulness of public polling in regards to the monument. One online petition calling for the removal of the monument has at least 9,800 signatures as of Friday; another seperate online petition opposing the removal has more than 2,800 signatures.
“What does that do? I mean, you can stack that. I’ve never seen a poll that I had any real degree of confidence in,” Imes said. “We have not asked or authorized in any way, any kind of poll, no magistrate has, no member of the court has. People call in here, but it's just like calling to want the road fixed.”
Imes previously floated the idea of a public forum regarding the monument, which he said is a good idea. He said someone else is organizing a potential forum, but declined to say who that individual is.
Imes said he’s trying to understand the sense of urgency regarding the monument, and also said he didn’t appreciate the use of “demand” in rhetoric coming from various removal advocates.
“Another thing I’ve been offended about is people sending me, ‘I demand you remove that monument.’ You don’t get anywhere with me, demanding something. If you got a right to demand, I want to see it,” Imes said. “You can’t demand of this [fiscal] court. You can’t demand of me, personally. I may yield to your demand, or I may not. It’s not a matter of my pride or principle...let’s at least be courteous about this thing.”
Imes said he would be fine if Attorney General Daniel Cameron expedited action on the monument, referring to Neal’s letter to Cameron. But he said he would defend local property against state and federal authority, which he added was what his comments on the monument from 2018 was about.
In reference to Imes’ opposition to the use of “demand” in rhetoric, Neal said he thinks the rhetoric is appropriate.
“I personally don’t know a different term of art other than ‘demand’ because that’s the best way I know to articulate,” Neal said. “So, do we demand a forum and a facilitation hearing by government officials? Yes. Are we afforded the right to demand our officials take action on matters of importance to the community? Yes. Are we threatening anybody? Absolutely not.”
Imes on Tuesday also added he was going on vacation this week, having the vacation “on the books” five months in advance.
Murray City Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday evening asking the Calloway County Fiscal Court to remove and relocate the statue. The city of Murray expressed support for removal alongside Murray State University, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, and former Murray State basketball star Ja Morant.
“Even though city government doesn’t control the statue or what happens to it, we want to use our voices to encourage its relocation,” said City Councilman Wesley Bolin on Thursday. “It’s a request to our colleagues and county government to move with speed and with purpose to get this relocated, knowing that there are legal complexities to work out, knowing that it might not be overnight. But we want to see a firm timeline and a quick resolution that’s becoming increasingly painful for a lot of people.”
Bolin said other cities have had ownership issues with the United Daughters of the Confederacy that have been worked through without legal battles, and he believes the county can do the same. Franklin, Tennessee, offered a settlement last year to the United Daughters of the Confederacy over a dispute involving a public square and Confederate monument in the square.
WKMS’ interview with Imes on Tuesday also touched on perceived historical interpretations of Robert E. Lee and Imes’ past memories of the monument.
“I probably pass that monument more times, as many times as anybody in Calloway County,” Imes said. “I don’t think I had ever gone over there until this started — was that Robert E. Lee, or not?”
Imes went on to pose a series of rhetorical questions about whether historical interpretations of figures like Robert E. Lee and other historical accounts offered are wholly accurate and have sufficient context.
“How many people have gone back and researched anything about Robert E. Lee, what he stood for, what he said about slavery, what his family had went through. Did Robert E. Lee, in fact, own any slaves? Did he join the Confederacy to fight to keep slaves? Was that his purpose,” Imes said. “I understand the symbolism and the association [with the monument]. I get that, but is that fair to Robert E. Lee? I mean, I don't know. When I ask that question, that's a theoretical question, only.”
Murray State History Department’s letter to Imes called for the removal of the monument, detailing how the monument represented a part of the “Lost Cause” ideology trying to negate the influence of slavery in the Confederacy. When asked about the letter, Imes said it’s hard to judge people’s true intentions in the early 20th century.
“Who are we to judge the people of 1900? I mean, they’ve tried to attach it to the Ku Klux Klan. How many have gone back to understand the purpose and intents of the Ku Klux Klan,” Imes said. “Everybody in my lifetime, I’ve never heard anybody speak well of the Ku Klux Klan, but if you’ll go back and read, I think it was [Nathan] Bedford Forrest that was one of the starters, that wasn’t what it was about.”
When asked for clarification on his comments regarding the Ku Klux Klan, Imes warned not to take his comments out of context, saying that he was only trying to ask if people fully understand history and how it relates to public opinion on the monument.
“I’m just saying, do people understand all that they’re talking about. That’s the bottom line of it,” Imes said. “I’m literally trying to understand as best I can, with the human mind, how other people see and view, and do this, and then you weigh in — what’s the majority.”
Imes also said on Tuesday he has not yet consulted with the Murray State History Department on the statue.
“My point is we're all too easily offended sometimes. Some people have bonafide, legitimate — in my mind — concerns at the offense [of the monument],” Imes said.
The Monument & Robert E. Lee
Mississippi State Assistant Professor of History Anne Marshall, who authored the book “Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State”, said historians generally agree on the historical interpretation of who Robert E. Lee was as a military general involved with the Confederacy and as an individual.
“Historians I think have pretty much said he’s not the worst, but he’s certainly not absolved,” Marshall said. “It isn’t so much about Lee himself. It’s about what he represented to the people who were constructing the statue in 1917, which is this ‘Lost Cause’ interpretation of history.”
Marshall said Lee wasn’t a “rabidly racist figure” among both people in the South and North following the Civil War, instead taking on a perception of “southern chivalric heroism” in joining the Confederacy to fight for his home state of Virginia.
Yet, Marshall also said that heroic mythology following Lee doesn’t negate the fact that Lee’s livelihood was built through enslaved labor, having inherited slaves from his wife.
“Whether he was a rabid racist or not, he certainly relied on the system of slavery. He didn’t want to see the end of slavery,” Marshall said.
In reference to the Robert E. Lee statue next to the Calloway County courthouse, she said the context of the time period with the rise of Jim Crow laws and lynchings throughout the South did coincide with the installation of the statue.
“I don’t know that people made the decision to say this is sort of a way to keep African Americans out of this courthouse,” Marshall said. “But that certainly went hand in hand with the policies that they created that did that.”