An open letter to Governor Matt Bevin

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By Stephen Lega

Gov. Bevin,

In 2015, you wrote an email to a reporter who was working for WAVE 3 applauding the decision by then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate battle flag from The Palmetto State’s capitol grounds.
In that email, you wrote, “... I think it would be equally appropriate for Kentucky to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from our capitol. It is important never to forget our history, but parts of our history are more appropriately displayed in museums, not on government property.”
What happened to you?
In a recent radio interview, you said you now support keeping the statue of a man who was leader of a traitorous and treasonous — and those are absolutely the correct words — action against the United States of America. In the aftermath of that, other news outlets sought clarification about what you meant. You told them this:
“[W]e need to be careful about pretending that our history is not our history. And so to that end I’m not going to weigh in on what happens or doesn’t happen in every given city. But I will say this: Hatred and bigotry has no place in Kentucky. Period.”
The emphasis on that last part of your quote is mine because it precisely explains why the statue of Davis should not be defended.
Was Davis born in Kentucky? Yes, but that is his only real connection to our state. He spent a majority of his life in Mississippi, where he was elected to Congress and later appointed as a senator.
In its online biography of Davis, The History Channel described him as a “champion of the unrestricted expansion of slavery into the territories.“ There is no greater evidence of this than the fact that he was chosen as president of the Confederacy.
Make no mistake, no matter what modern Confederate apologists want to say, slavery — based on a belief that certain people were inferior because of the color of their skin — was the foundation of the Confederacy. For proof, just read the text of “The Cornerstone Address” delivered March 21, 1861, by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate states. According to him, maintaining the right to own slaves was the primary reason those states wanted to leave the Union. These are Stephens’ words on that subject:
“The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Again the emphasis is mine because I don’t want you, Gov. Bevin, to miss the point of the Confederacy. Stephens alluded to the Founding Fathers’ views on slavery as “an evil they knew not well how to deal with.”
But Stephens also wanted to be absolutely clear. He did not believe slavery was evil. In fact, Stephens said this view of slavery was the “foundation” of the Confederacy:
“[I]ts corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Jefferson Davis agreed with these ideas wholeheartedly. Whatever imagined justifications for keeping Davis’ statue in the rotunda of our own Capitol no longer hold water, if they ever did.
Leaving Davis’ statue in the rotunda implies that he was an admirable figure. He was not, and he certainly should not be viewed that way today.
Maybe you were right in 2015. Maybe moving Davis’ statue to a museum would offer an opportunity to put his place in history in perspective. A museum display could explain that while Davis once served in the U.S. government, he turned his back on his country to fight for his right to own people instead.
Perhaps we should heed the words of another famous Confederate, Gen. Robert E. Lee. After the Civil War, Lee opposed monuments to the Confederacy just as he opposed flying the Confederate flag.
“I think it wisest moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” Lee wrote in a letter to the Gettysburg Identification Meeting.
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have shown us that Lee was right. Fetishizing the Confederacy absolutely keeps open the wounds of a war that ended more than 150 years ago.
It’s not a coincidence that the loudest proponents of keeping Confederate statues are self-proclaimed white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klan members.
I don’t have any delusions about our national history. Racism and discrimination remained legal throughout the United States long after slavery ended. And if we are being honest, we know that racism remains part of our social fabric even if it may not have the same support of law that it once did. We have made progress, but our journey as a nation is not over.
Removing the statues of Davis and other Confederate heroes isn’t going to end all the problems affecting our country. It might just be a symbolic step, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

Stephen Lega

Editor’s note: Stephen Lega is the former news editor of The Lebanon Enterprise.