Get Davis statue out of the Rotunda

August 10, 2009

I recently made a trip to the State Capitol. Having the opportunity to see this space gives it a fuller perspective—one every citizen should enjoy. The experience also gives rise, in my mind, to a call to face our shadow and to confront the questions that this shadow raises.

I have heard it said that if we spend enough time in a location, we, as humans, start to “become our building” or to “become like our space.” This, I believe, can be said of our state Capitol. It still reflects the richness and paradoxes of our state—both our light and our darkness. To make this point, let me give you a brief tour.

In the Kentucky Supreme Court, the Justices sit in chairs that are so close they must sit down and get up in unison or risk getting stuck in place. Not moving in unison, it seems, causes these chairs to crash into each other with no one being able to rise. What a wonderful symbol of the unified action and collective wisdom that is required of our Kentucky Supreme Court. While they often disagree in outcome, at the most literal of root levels, they must move together and ultimately speak in one voice.

In the General Assembly, there is an image of the commonwealth above the speaker’s chair: Two frontiersmen shaking hands in recognition of the “common wealth.” What a wonderful emblem—welcoming and inclusive. While politics is a tough business, our individual politicians hold to this standard in spite of the “common competition” that becomes the day-to-day reality of political life.

The center of the Capitol is the rotunda. This, in some ways, is a symbol of our democracy; the place that divides but unifies the branches of our government. On many occasions, the rotunda serves as a ceremonial space. But more often, it serves as an orientation space for visitors who explore the state Capitol. It is, in my opinion, sacred space.

The focus of the rotunda is Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln—no one better to represent our “unbridled spirit.” But the symbol of Lincoln is framed by a different symbol of our past. Behind Lincoln, and in Lincoln’s shadow, is Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy. How ironic that Davis, once again, is in Lincoln’s shadow in this public space. The two, it seems, will be forever tied in history. But is the rotunda simply a museum?

Whatever your opinion, the statue of Jefferson Davis in our rotunda casts a shadow and raises tough questions. When our school children visit, what inspiration does Davis provide? How does the image of Jefferson Davis greet our visitors and represent our commonwealth? Does Davis still represent that unresolved part of our history? How does Davis even connect to Kentucky’s history other than being born here?

Ask yourself again: Is the rotunda the right place for Jefferson Davis? There is a time and a place for everything. To turn the question, perhaps you think this is not the time and the place to look at this issue when we have more important things to do. To that I say, if not now, then when? When will the time ever be right, if not now?

In working with this issue, I have some suggestions: Let’s show the spirit of Lincoln, who offered forgiveness and pardon to his enemies. To do this, let’s find a new, more suitable, home for Jefferson Davis outside of the rotunda. But let’s do it with all due respect. In my view, the time has come to let go of Jefferson Davis in the rotunda while never forgetting that he is part of our past.

The time has come to move together on this, like the chairs in our Supreme Court, and to reach out and show inclusiveness in our symbols, like the emblem of our “common wealth.” The time has come to make the rotunda a welcoming place for everyone and an appropriate place for public ceremonies that challenge a new vision for our future.

So this is my community challenge: Allow Jefferson Davis to respectfully take his leave of the rotunda. Write your elected official an invitation (not a demand) to move the Jefferson Davis statue outside of the Rotunda to a more suitable location.

THOMAS M. WILLIAMS
Board Member
Interfaith Paths to Peace
Louisville