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SPLC-sponsored film documents battle over Confederate statue in Kentucky town

The Western Kentucky city of Murray seems an unlikely place for racial reckoning. It is home to only about 19,000 people – a population that is overwhelmingly white – and a university. In 2012, it successfully campaigned to earn the moniker “friendliest small town in America” from a national tourism marketing association. It sits in a state that, while divided during the Civil War, never seceded from the Union.

But it turns out that the small town, whose website depicts a sun-dappled country road winding through peaceful fields, is no different than much of the rest of the United States. Disturb things just a little and its veneer reveals an interior of discrimination, racial tension and resentment. 

That’s what happened in Murray in the summer of 2020, when some residents began peacefully demonstrating at the site of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee – and counterprotesters led by local white business leaders confronted them, some with epithets and pepper spray. As Confederate monuments in larger cities across the country began coming down in that season of racial reckoning, what happened when the movement for justice and equity came to Murray became emblematic of the piercing divisions over what communities choose to remember, and what they choose to forget. 

A new documentary, “Ghosts of a Lost Cause,” will screen at the Wrather Museum of Murray State University on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 15. Produced with support from the Kentucky Rural Urban Exchange through the Rural Urban Solidarity Project, with this and future screenings sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, it recounts the thus-far-unsuccessful protests to remove the 16-foot-tall monument, as well as what led to the protests and their impact in the years since.

After the documentary screening at Murray State, there will be a panel discussion featuring organizers and leaders of the protests, community members, professors and university leaders.

The SPLC’s Intelligence Project is funding the screenings through one of about a dozen grants it awarded to grassroots organizations over the past year and a half. The SPLC grant includes funding for the leaders of the protests in Murray to develop a guide for advocates seeking to launch efforts to remove Confederate monuments in their communities, and support for planned future documentaries that would highlight such efforts.

The Intelligence Project works to expose, prevent and counter far-right extremism in the United States. Currently tracking more than 1,300 extremist groups operating across the country, the SPLC is the premier organization in the U.S. monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups and far-right antigovernment extremists. The grant program is a new initiative intended to provide tools to activists working in their communities to understand their history and promote democracy.

“The Intelligence Project is known for exposing the really dark parts of our society,” Intelligence Project Director Susan Corke said.

With the grants, she said, “we want to spark hope. We want to show that this can be done, that this stone and marble that’s been up for decades, that ordinary citizens can raise their voices and can come together and can get a start on taking these down. Communities can make a difference and can change how their history is told.”

Today, the Robert E. Lee statue still stands in Murray, and the resentments uncovered that summer still simmer, boiling up occasionally into threats and intimidation.

But Murray is not the same.

While the protesters are gone, conversations in town continue about how to chip away at a white power structure and attitudes that have shaped Murray for generations. Some people who first found their political voice during the protests have won local elected office. Others have joined together to tackle systemic racism and educate themselves and others. Prominent local religious leaders and professors at the university have called for the monument to be taken down, as has professional basketball player Ja Morant, who attended Murray State, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.

Protest and backlash

Making the difference in Murray started with a letter from a young Black man, Sherman Neal II. An attorney and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps with 15 months of active duty in the Middle East under his belt, Neal moved to the city in 2019. He came to Murray to take his dream job – coaching football at Murray State University as an offensive and special teams specialist.

Raised in the suburbs of Chicago by parents with a deep belief in the primacy of advocating for justice, the husband and father was curious about where he was taking his family to live. Prominently displayed on the Murray Wikipedia page was a photograph Neal said gave him an idea: a large image of the statue of Lee. The centerpiece of a Confederate memorial erected in 1917 outside the Calloway County Courthouse, at the most prominent intersection in town, it stands atop a concrete base inscribed “In Loving Remembrance” of Confederate soldiers.

Statue of Robert E. Lee on a pedestal with carvings for Confederate Soldiers.
The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in downtown Murray, Kentucky, once housed a “whites-only” fountain. (Credit: Gerry Seavo James)

Like thousands of other such monuments throughout the U.S., it was erected decades after the Civil War ended, amid Jim Crow laws and the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan. The SPLC’s Whose Heritage? project has documented more than 2,000 Confederate symbols currently in U.S. public spaces. These symbols show up in or on military property, government buildings, schools, parks, cities and streets.

The monument in Murray, like many others, was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which conducted a decades-long campaign to whitewash history and glorify the “Lost Cause” ideology of white supremacy.

The monument seemed odd and disturbing, Neal said. Kentucky was not a Confederate state. Plus, of the 100,000 Kentuckians who served in the Civil War, about 75,000 fought for the Union Army.

As his discomfort grew, so were calls for racial justice around the country. In May 2020, videos of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging near Brunswick, Georgia, and the killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman gunned down by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, went viral. Less than a month later, on June 1, 2020, Neal wrote a letter about the monument to city and county political leaders and forwarded copies to local media outlets.

“I am a resident of Murray, Kentucky,” Neal wrote. “I am a Black male. I am no longer willing to accept state-sponsored symbols of institutional racism in my community. The erection and maintenance of the Robert E. Lee Confederate memorial statue located on the courthouse square is an affront to all residents who support notions of equality and value the American justice system. The ‘friendliest small town in America’ must remove this symbol of oppression if the purported friendliness extends to its Black residents.”

Neal’s letter continued: “When my 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter ask, ‘Who’s that man and why is he up there?’ I will inform them that the city worked in conjunction with the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan by proxy, to place him up there with the intent to keep Black people quiet and subservient. I will then tell him that we will not be intimidated by any symbol and will never be subservient to any man. We will tear down this and other actual/symbolic barriers to justice – eventually.”

The letter, and the reaction to it, swept the college town into protests and calls for action. There were petitions: An online petition calling for removal of the statue garnered more than 10,000 signatures. As elsewhere in the country, the protests drew a furious backlash. Neal’s family became a target of white supremacist groups. Far-right militias came into town to confront the peaceful protesters. More than 2,900 people signed a petition opposing the removal.

A historical record

The new film uses archival and news footage to tell the story of the Murray protests. But it relies heavily on interviews with community members, many of them women, from across the age and racial spectrum. Executive producer Gerry Seavo James, who has documented a range of protests and movements around Kentucky, said he approached Neal to make the film in part because it presented an opportunity to create a historical record of social justice activism in a rural community, the sort of community whose stories are often left untold.

“People sometimes call these places advocacy deserts, but it turns out they are deserts not because the work isn’t happening but because it isn’t being encouraged, it isn’t being seen,” James said. “What we’re seeing in a place like Murray is a lot of people in the community just wanting to build each other up. I think that’s important and that’s beautiful.”

Neal doesn’t live in Murray anymore. He took a new job elsewhere. But he says he will never leave the story of Murray behind, or the fight the protests represent. He and James are planning to show the documentary widely, at universities, at film festivals and to interested groups across the country. 

He wants to create a toolkit for advocates protesting for racial justice, with tips on how to get out their message and how to turn advocacy into political power. He said he is not discouraged by what happened in Murray. Inspired by the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, he says he had learned patience. 

“I am convinced that eventually we are going to have to address every single one of these [Confederate symbols and monuments] in every place that they reside in, or we’re at a real risk of losing, you know, the better nature of this country,” Neal said. “Once we remove these monuments and expose who is surrounding these things, then we can get inside of that courthouse and see what other poison is in there.”

Photo at top: Community organizers Robyn Pizzo, left, Sherman Neal II and J. Shelly Baskin hold “Move the Monument” yard signs demanding the removal of the Calloway County Confederate Monument in Murray, Kentucky. (Credit: Gerry Seavo James)