Jefferson Davis’ days in Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda are numbered.
It’s time for one of the worst symbols of our state’s history to be supplanted by The Greatest of All Time.
It’s time for Muhammad Ali to take his rightful place in the cathedral of our Commonwealth.
The debate about Davis is over. Leading Republicans such as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Attorney General Daniel Cameron have joined pretty much every state Democrat on record calling for the Confederate statue’s ouster from the center of Kentucky’s Capitol. Most importantly, the guy who appoints the committee that makes the decision, Governor Andy Beshear, opined this past week that the traitor’s tribute should be relocated to a history musuem. We should hope (perhaps expect?) that in the coming weeks, the state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission will start ordering the moving vans.
Indeed, the case for ridding Davis’ taint from our statuary circle has become such a consensus slam dunk that I won’t even bother you with my preaching. (If you must…here are my columns from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.)
But I’ll admit that the case for Muhammad Ali entering the ring of fame has been, to date, a split decision.
Over the past six years, I’ve shared some compelling images:
Picture the likeness of the world’s most celebrated 20th century icon just feet away from the 19th century’s most important American. (Honest Abe, for those of you keeping score).
Consider the significance of a child of Jim Crow Louisville joining a posthumous gathering of Kentucky’s proudest native sons, there by the simple virtue of his ideas, deeds and eloquence.
Imagine the sense of justice from witnessing a symbol of hope, equality, peace, and freedom replace an archetype of bigotry, division, violence and suppression.
One major objection, however, continues to be raised: According to some, Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam makes him an unsuitable role model for his home state. Some argue that his “draft-dodging” was an insult to the men who actually served, and died, for their country. Others say that his vocal critique of the war and of U.S. social policy branded him as unpatriotic, un-American even.
I believe that the events and dialogue of the past week have laid to rest this shibboleth. Indeed, we are beginning to reach a new national consensus on what it truly means to be an American patriot.
From street demonstrations in all fifty states to discussions in the NFL boardrooms, we can better understand that peaceful protests against U.S. policy do not signify attacks on the flag, troops or country, but rather a recommitment to the nation’s founding values. With social media blanketed by bipartisan proclamations that “black lives matter,” we can better understand why an African-American man might not want to die for a country that had not safeguarded his own community’s freedoms. As conservative politicians and religious leaders proclaim that the right to attend church services in person is so sacrosanct that public safety during a pandemic must take a back seat, we can better understand the decision of a deeply devout man to honor his own religious beliefs by shunning an unjust war.
Today’s moment, today’s movement, is a natural byproduct of the Champ’s legacy. There’s so much more work to be done. But in an era when symbols really matter, paying Ali Kentucky’s highest honor would be an important leap forward.
A statue of Ali is likely not in the cards: As I learned from his family when I first raised this issue, Ali believed that Islam prohibits three-dimensional representations of Muslims. Instead, Davis’ former corner should be covered with a portrait, or better yet, a mural honoring the Louisville legend’s life.
(That leaves room for a statue of another great Kentuckian. I would love to see the likeness of civil rights activist Georgia Davis Powers or that of education innovator Lillian Press, two extraordinary achievers who also happened to be lovely, compassionate women.)
As our recent communal experience makes clear, we’ve had enough talk. It’s time for action. If you’re with me, I ask that you sign this petition to the members of the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, urging them to immediately remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda, and replace it with a tribute to Muhammad Ali. Let’s re-sanctify our hallowed hall so that our most important Kentuckians — the schoolchildren who visit the Capitol every week — will learn the true meaning of our Commonwealth’s values.