This piece originally appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal on July 8, 2015.
By: Scott Jennings
Our nation is engaged in a great history lesson, prompted by a savage act of violence that claimed the lives of nine African-Americans in South Carolina.
America is not a country filled with bystanders. From the wreckage of tragedy, we tend not to gawk but rather to act, compelled to make heartbreak mean something, to show the violent that their actions caused the opposite of what they intended.
The shooter wanted to spark a race war. In reality, he sparked a war on racism.
In South Carolina, the legislature overwhelmingly voted to open debate on removing the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, which they almost certainly will do this summer.
People in other states, equally horrified by the shooting, wish to stand up to the shooter’s worldview. In Frankfort, it is likely that the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a Kentuckian by birth, will be removed from the state capitol and sent to a museum.
I’m not a believer in forgetting history, but rather in using it to inform our future. Davis should come out of the state capitol rotunda because we want the schoolchildren passing through to look up at those statues and be inspired to do something great. Romanticizing the Confederacy, a condition that has plagued this state for far too long, is not something we wish to engender.
Professor James Loewen recently wrote in The Washington Post that “90,000 Kentuckians [fought] for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.”
Kentucky’s Republican leadership — with a responsibility to uphold the legacy of the party of Lincoln — have led the way in calling for us to remove Davis from the rotunda. We have more to do, because the state capitol isn’t the only place where kids look up in wonder.
What to do about the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Fairview, Ky., is an open question. Drive along U.S. 68 in Todd County and you can’t miss the 351-foot obelisk and surrounding park marking the birthplace of Davis. The Commonwealth pays to maintain the park and staff the museum.
As a kid growing up in Western Kentucky, I drove past that obelisk many times. I don’t recall stopping, but I certainly knew it was a memorial to Jefferson Davis. The only other obelisk with which I was familiar was the one in Washington, D.C., honoring our first president.
You can see how we might be giving schoolkids the wrong impression in Fairview.
I spent a recent Saturday in Springfield, Ill., taking my six-year-old son to see the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. This year is the museum’s tenth anniversary, truly a magnificent walkthrough of Lincoln’s life and greatness. From the recreation of the storied Kentucky log cabin to that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre, the museum brings to life the greatest Kentuckian for every kid who visits.
My son is hooked. He was already a bit of a Lincoln buff before, able to recount details of Lincoln’s assassination and subsequent manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. In fact, he refused to have his picture taken with the sneering Booth figure that leans against the White House facade in the museum, forever icily staring at the Lincoln family which greets your entrance.
The museum display that struck my son most was the depiction of a slave auction showing a family being torn apart, adults led away in shackles and a child crying in horror. It made no sense to him that human beings could own each other.
As scary as it might have been, the scene gave us a chance to talk about why Lincoln is remembered as our greatest president. I hope our conversation serves as a foundation of understanding for him about Kentucky’s role in preserving the Union, and the governing ideal that all men are created equal.
As we explored Lincoln’s life together, I thought about the Davis monument I remembered seeing as a kid. And as we approached Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery, I looked up at the obelisk that sits atop the memorial, feeling proud to be a Kentuckian and a Republican.
Kentucky produced Lincoln and Davis, and is home to the “tallest, poured in place concrete obelisk in the world,” according to the Kentucky state park website. It currently honors the lesser of the two men, but that should change.
As it did on the removal of the Davis statue, Kentucky’s Republican leadership should consider leading a movement to change the Davis memorial into one that comprehensively honors Kentucky’s unique role in the Civil War. We should repurpose this obelisk as the Kentucky Civil War Memorial and Museum, offering an educational tourist attraction where our Civil War history can be told in full.
This is a taxpayer-funded monument. When kids ask parents why we have a 351-foot obelisk in the Western Kentucky countryside we should be able to talk about more than just Jefferson Davis, whose ideals represent our past, not our future.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this column contains hyperlinked citations.