The Calloway County Fiscal Court unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday stating a Confederate monument on county courthouse grounds will remain there. County leadership at their monthly meeting said their decision does not prevent future action and discussion on the monument, yet advocates calling for the removal and relocation of the monument say the resolution is a “disappointment.”
“The Fiscal Court of Calloway County, Kentucky hereby resolves that the Confederate Monument dedicated to the remembrance of those Calloway Countians who fought in the Civil War shall remain standing upon the Northeast corner of the grounds of the Calloway County Courthouse for so long as the owners of that Monument and the citizens of Calloway County are so inclined,” the resolution concludes.
The resolution also states the J.N. Williams Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which met as an organization in Murray as recently as last year, has “claimed ownership” of the monument, based on records from the time period in which the monument was installed. The resolution continues to state the court has no reason to dispute that claim of ownership.
The monument was installed in 1917 with funds from the United Daughters of Confederacy. Ownership of the monument -- which features a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee -- was previously unclear with conflicting information on whether the county or UDC held ownership.
In an interview prior to the meeting, County Attorney Bryan Ernstberger said records of minutes from a fiscal court meeting in late 1916 stated the UDC would be given the “privilege” of placing the monument on courthouse grounds.
“I think the evidence is such that most likely, the answer from a hundred years ago is that they owned it and didn’t give it to the county. I don’t know if that’s definitive, but the best evidence says that they own it,” said Ernstberger. “That the fiscal court conveyed a privilege for it to be there.”
Some of the county magistrates said during the meeting the resolution did not prevent the fiscal court from addressing potential relocation in the future, despite no action being taken at this time.
“This resolution does not close the door to anything like that. This resolution basically says that the responsibility and ownership is [with the] UDC,” said District Three County Magistrate Don Cherry. “If we make decisions about mob rule, then we’ve lost control of our government.”
Yet, Murray State University assistant football coach Sherman Neal, a prominent advocate of removing and relocating the monument, said he isn’t fully convinced the county government is dedicated to continue studying the issue.
“To me, there’s no ongoing discussion the fiscal court wants to hear. The resolution...is an effort to maintain the status quo indefinitely according to the narrative established by the United Daughters of the Confederacy,” Neal said.
Neal also said he believes the use of the term “mob rule” is a deflection by county magistrates to avoid speaking on their own personal opinions regarding the statue. Neal previously sent a letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron urging the constitutional officer to expedite action on the monument. Neal said he’s received receipt of the letter and that the AG’s office is monitoring the situation.
After the resolution was unanimously approved, Judge-Executive Kenny Imes praised District 4 County Magistrate Paul Rister for a survey that Rister recently conducted of county constituents’ opinions on the statue, saying the poll was “one of the best researched and done fairly and as best anybody could do.” Imes previously raised doubts about the usefulness of online public polling in regards to the monument, referencing online petitions that received thousands of signatures.
In justifying the resolution, Rister detailed how he polled 280 constituents in his county district leading up to the July 15 meeting. Rister said he sent out an online poll link, selecting various constituents who had previously reached out to him, getting around 80 responses using Survey Monkey. He said he closed the online poll after a week as he didn’t want the poll “to get viral,” only intended for the constituents he selected.
Rister said he then drove through his county district during the morning, afternoon, and evening to hand out surveys to constituents in public. He said he didn’t knock on doors, and only handed out surveys to those who were outside for various reasons. Rister said 77% of people surveyed wanted the monument to stay, while 23% wanted it moved. He said he drew his methodology for the study from his experience as a former district biologist for the Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife Resources, conducting surveys of angler attitudes.
“In this decision, I didn’t want my opinion. I wasn’t elected for my opinion on this. That’s why I went to my constituents for their opinion,” Rister said. “I’ve heard people say ‘Well, now that all of this is out, Murray State may not be able to recruit and may hurt Murray State basketball, it may hurt economics, it may hurt whatever.’ And my initial thought is, it’s been there for over 100 years and hasn’t hurt any of that.”
Rister said he considers the statue to be “amoral,” in that individuals can see both good and bad with the statue. Yet, another removal advocate who spoke to the court disagrees.
Murray State University Assistant Professor of Political Science Kevin Elliott urged the court to pass a resolution stating intent to remove the statue, arguing the county could avoid future division, protests and potential violence the statue’s presence may cause, along with the extra law enforcement costs associated with protecting the statue. Elliott also said relocating the statue is morally the right thing to do, given the negative messages of oppression it conveys with it being next to the courthouse.
“If oppression is on the ballot and people vote for it, it doesn't make it any less oppression or injustice,” Elliott said. “So I think one of things advocates of relocation of the monument want to do is to educate the public about this issue in trying to make clear what the issue is here is an issue of justice and oppression, and the sort of fundamental understanding of citizens as free and equal to each other.”
Elliott said he and other advocates plan to prepare answers to legal and financial questions asked by the fiscal court regarding a potential removal. Elliott in speaking to the court said the monument could be moved to Bowman Cemetery in Murray, under the purview of a newly created cemetery board.
Removal advocates on July 14 sent a report to the fiscal court demanding the court send its intent to the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission by July 17 to relocate the monument. A protest in reaction to the passed resolution, organized through Facebook, appears to be set this evening at the county courthouse.