One of the transcendental joys of political recovery is the liberating freedom to speak candidly on controversial subjects, sometimes even to share unpopular opinions. But when I used this column last November to float the unconventional idea of removing Confederacy President Jefferson Davis’ statue from Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda — and replace it with a likeness of Muhammad Ali — I was taken aback by the publicity that it generated, as well as the level of vitriol I provoked.
And then, in the middle of the head-spinning week that just passed, my outlier opinion became conventional wisdom.
Just days after a Confederate flag-waving murderer united the nation against racism, politicians across the country rushed to rid the public square of all vestiges of Dixie. (The unprecedented speed of cultural reversal made Friday’s denouement on marriage equality seem tortoise-like in comparison.) Here in our favorite border state, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell courageously led the charge, demanding a reexamination of Jeff Davis’ prominent Capitol setting. With the conservative vanguard providing cover, nearly every leading state politician of both parties joined the call, and Governor Steve Beshear ordered a review of the Rotunda lineup. Now, with both gubernatorial nominees and the leaders of both houses of the legislature announcing their support for Davis’ removal, it’s no longer a matter of if, but when.
I’m sticking with my first choice to fill the imminent vacancy. As I elaborated more elaborately in my original essay, Muhammad Ali was not simply an iconic icon, the greatest sportsman of the 20th century (if not OF ALL TIME), and for decades the world’s most famous citizen. Louisville’s native son was more significantly an outspoken leader for this nation’s most moral modern movement: the deliverance of civil rights to millions of American citizens that Jefferson Davis had fought so desperately to keep enslaved. It would be the most fitting of substitutions.
Critics of my proposal have focused their ire on Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. While I respect that opinion — especially from those who actually served — I strongly disagree with the common characterization Ali’s was an action of cowardice. Like most well-connected young men of his generation (for example, our previous two Presidents), Ali could have avoided combat without controversy. But the devout Muslim and anti-war activist took the path of most resistance, risking his freedom and stalling his brilliant career to advocate his political beliefs and stay true to his faith. (Contrast that to Jefferson Davis’ “courage” in trying to avoid Union capture by wearing his wife’s dress. And please, no Caitlyn Jenner comparisons in the comments.)
Alas, after I published my essay, I learned from his family that The Champ’s very faith prohibits his representation in three-dimensional form. So I’ve modified my request for an Ali statue to instead call for a mural or painting. (If you agree, please sign my recirculated petition.)
But whether or not I get my wish, Davis’ removal will leave statutory space for a new Kentucky hero in marble or granite. And with the Governor asking for public suggestions (you can leave yours at this state web site), I’d like to suggest a few from the world of Kentucky sports.
I know, I know. Our state already places far too much emphasis on sporting contests; far too little on the things that really matter. (Check out this Joel Pett cartoon on point.) But as I’ve argued and pleaded for months and months in this column, sports does matter: It’s not only a critical part of Kentucky’s fabric, it’s often the only thread that binds our diverse and divided state together. And several of our sports heroes have transcended their games to impact our culture.
Of course, identifying the right individual to memorialize in stone is challenging. Here are my thoughts on the usual (and unusual) suspects:
A.B. “Happy” Chandler: Perhaps the most famous example of Kentucky’s overlapping passions for politics and sports, the former Governor and U.S. Senator served as Major League Baseball’s second Commissioner, with his preeminent accomplishment being the integration the sport through the admission of Jackie Robinson. While Chandler already boasts a small bust in the back lobby of the Capitol, he arguably has a stronger case for a full statue than his contemporary and rival, former Vice President Alben Barkley, whose likeness currently stands a few feet from Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay. Happy, however, the proud “Dixiecrat” who actually brought the Jefferson Davis statue to the Rotunda in 1936, is not the right figure to replace him. Verdict: Not Happy, Not Now.
Adolph Rupp: The very man who established the Commonwealth’s most beloved and quintessential sports team as an iconic institution, Rupp has made a profound influence on our state’s culture. However, while the caricature of Rupp-as-racist is unfair to the coach whose views and actions were much more nuanced, Rupp’s selection would be the wrong message to send simultaneously as racism’s great symbol is expunged. Besides, the state’s most popular landmark is already named after him. Verdict: Probably never.
Tori Murden McClure: In a society that celebrates individual triumph over adversity, there’s no better symbol of the durability of the human will and spirit than the first American (and the first woman) to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the first woman (and the first American) to ski to the South Pole. Even better, McClure has spent her intervening years in Kentucky as a humanitarian, advocating for homeless women, and now as an educator, serving as President of Louisville’s Spalding University. Of course, the Ã¼ber-accomplished McClure is likely a bit took young for consideration. While the current rule requiring a statutory honoree to be dead for 40 years needs to be adjusted, we probably should give McClure a few more decades of impressive accomplishment before enshrining her in Frankfort. Verdict: Too early.
Steve Cauthen atop Secretariat: Of course, such a pairing would be historically inaccurate: Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown in 1978, five years after Big Red set the standard for all thoroughbreds. But the two Kentucky natives are the only two equine-related athletes to be named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, and they serve as perhaps the two most enduring symbols of the state’s signature industry — a business and way of life that brings the Commonwealth significant glory, prestige and economic benefits. But while Cauthen remains an influential industry leader, Secretariat mostly just ate, lounged and had sex after his retirement. Verdict: Too horsy.
A Kentucky Basketball Starting Five for the Ages: Since it would be impossible to pick just one hoopster to represent the sport in the Rotunda, I suggest instead a marble huddle — an all-time starting five that both excelled on the court and contributed to the community. Best yet, replace Davis with a racially diverse cast — a visual demonstration of basketball’s healing power; as I discussed here, there’s been no greater uniting racial force in the Commonwealth. I’ll start the discussion with four Kentucky natives, all-stars on the court; civic leaders later: Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Jimmy Dan Conner, Jack “Goose” Givens, and Darryl Griffith. And I’ll throw in the most prolific Kentucky hoops star of all time, now an anti-discrimination advocate, Valerie Still. Share your choices in the comments section below. Verdict: Just do it!
I’m headed off to Vegas tomorrow to chase a World Series of Poker bracelet (I came close in 2012). You can follow my exploits on Twitter at @RecoveringPol. More importantly, if you or someone you know will be playing, tweet at me — I want to interview other wannabes for my next KSR piece.