This year the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, a celebration of American racial harmony, comes in the context of a turning in American race relations.
On 17 June 2015 white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine worshipers at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church. He hoped to provoke a race war. Instead his actions—coming in the context of numerous police shootings of innocent African Americans documented by the Black Lives Matter Movement—provoked governmental as well as popular responses.
Roof’s terrorism led municipalities throughout the South to remove, or consider removing, Confederate monuments from public places. This also produced a backlash by those wishing to protect Southern heritage. This was seen in Charlottesville, Virginia, where attempts to relocate its statue of Lee turned deadly violent when militant White nationalists, Klansmen, and alt-right protesters converged on the university town and attacked local activists who supported the relocation.
In this context, many Kentuckians asked what should be done with their 65 Confederate markers and memorials. Under state law the decision rests with each municipality. Lexington moved the massive bronze statues of John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge from the capitol grounds to Veterans Park.
In 1918, Calloway County’s United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the Robert E. Lee statue-fountain that now stands on Murray’s courthouse square. It might be removed, as other cities have done with their memorials, but should it be? Might its removal incite a defense of an imagined Confederate heritage? Might its removal allow us to forget the past evils it now also represents? Might the Lee monument, properly historicized by a series of plaques, warn future generations against the Lost Cause slave system it was intended to commemorate?
To avoid the inevitable conflict that would attend the Lee statue’s removal—while still addressing the issues its presence raises— I propose that memorial be erected at the courthouse to Martin Luther King, Jr. whose dream shaped our state and our nation.
Some will object to this, I am sure. Although King twice addressed civil rights rallies in Kentucky (including the 1967 Derby Day rally), King never visited West Kentucky. Why, then, should Calloway Country erect a statue to him? That said, Lee never campaigned in Kentucky, yet his statue is here. Others will object to the cost of an MLK memorial. But these objections may be addressed by creating an MLK Memorial Foundation to raise funds—just as the United Daughters of the Confederacy did for the Lee statue.
A half century ago Bob Dylan “The times they are a’ changin’.” The change he saw coming then is now just arriving. Murray’s MLK memorial will help that change along.
Dr. Bill Schell is a Professor Emeritus of History at Murray State University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of WKMS or its staff.