The Battle to Defeat Robert E. Lee in a Kentucky Town
Sherman Neal, an offensive assistant coach at Kentucky’s Murray State University, has been calling for the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Murray, Kentucky. Photos: Andrew Cenci

The Battle to Defeat Robert E. Lee in a Kentucky Town

One war veteran and attorney — and, yes…

“Can’t think of another reason why Grandma, one generation removed from slavery, would have picked that name,” says Sherman Neal, a few days after he took up the same battle his namesake died thinking was already won. A portrait of General William T. Sherman hangs in Neal’s office — a wedding gift from his brother — with a favorite quote from the legendary Union leader engraved along the bottom edge of its frame: “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”

“Basically just saying I like to fight,” Neal jokes. “I don’t know — sometimes I think everybody’s going to war with me.”

For Neal, who became a lawyer and spent six years on active duty in the Marines (including tours in Iraq and Kuwait) before returning to the football field as an offensive assistant coach at Kentucky’s Murray State University, his next fight took some time to become clear.

An avid runner, he was shaken by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a video of which went viral in early May. “I first ‘fit the description’ when I was around seven years old,” Neal tweeted at the time. “A grocery security guard grabbed me, put me against the wall, and searched me for stolen candy. My mom produced the receipt.” He thought about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. “Before acting, there are guides to how to do this,” he says now. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. You should understand what the people before you did, so you can either build upon where they failed or take from their successes.”

Thanks to his service, his name, and his family — the elder Sherman is a retired naval officer from South Carolina, and most members of that side of his family have served — the 31-year-old is something of a military history buff and is particularly interested in the Civil War. That means he’s long wrestled with the continued existence of the Confederate battle flag on Marine bases. Every year, servicemembers fill out surveys about the state of their bases and their experience in the armed forces; every year, Neal wrote the same thing: “On a United States military installation, you should not be flying the flag of an enemy.”

“I knew that they would talk to a football coach differently than they would talk to a Marine differently than they would talk to an attorney,” he says, pointing out that even the New York Times quoted him simply as “a football coach.”

When he learned about George Floyd’s killing and saw the protests happening around the country, Neal knew he needed to do something. A mission he would be able to see through, even in a small town like Murray, Kentucky. While he was running through the town square, he looked up and saw a life-size statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee staring down at him from atop a memorial for Confederate soldiers in front of the Calloway County Fiscal Court. He had already been struck by Gen. David Berger’s April letter calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Marine bases (a ban that has since been made official) — but the statue wasn’t on a base. The statue was in town.

“It hit me,” he says. “That was it.”

So Neal wrote a letter to local leadership requesting that it be removed:

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 them 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.

He intentionally omitted the fact that he is a veteran and a licensed attorney — though those facts are easy enough to find on his Murray State bio page and LinkedIn — wanting to see how his request would be received in light of how most of his neighbors saw him: a Black man who coaches football. “I knew that they would talk to a football coach differently than they would talk to a Marine differently than they would talk to an attorney,” he says, pointing out that even the New York Times quoted him simply as “a football coach.” “It’s been universal — ‘football coach’ — which tells you some things as well.”

Neal wasn’t the first person to think that the memorial, erected in 1917 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, needed to go. But opposition has been steadfast. “The only time it would be removed is by a majority vote of the fiscal court,” current Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes said in 2018 when he insisted that it would not move during his tenure. “Or in the case of federal Marshals hauling me off to Paducah and putting me in federal prison. They could do what they want to after that.” The memorial is protected by both the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission and the National Register of Historic Places, though those protections can be reevaluated at the request of the county.

Many residents, especially younger ones, simply never noticed the statue. “I didn’t really know what that statue was of,” says Linda Arakelyan, a 21-year-old student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who grew up in Murray. “I just assumed that it was of a good person because I wouldn’t expect that the town I was living in would set up a statue of a man like that.” Since reading Neal’s letter, she started a petition to remove the statue that has almost 10,000 signatures. (A counter-petition to keep the memorial in place has nearly 2,000 signatures.)

“I’d never noticed it, and then after his letter I Googled it,” says All-American Murray State receiver Malik Honeycutt, who is entering his senior season. “Honestly, it’s not surprising, but it’s still wrong.”

Murray is just one of many American towns and cities where vestiges of the Confederacy — and tributes to colonizers like Christopher Columbus — are seeing renewed criticism. Nationwide protests about police brutality and systemic injustice in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings have also drawn attention to how so many versions of American history Whitewash its endemic inequality, often via quotidian remembrances like local monuments and street names.

Those protests have prompted a seeming tidal wave of overdue changes, with Confederate monuments being removed in places like Alabama and Virginia — places that are much more closely associated with the Confederacy than Kentucky. Even NASCAR, long seen as a bastion of Southern, White American culture, banned the Confederate flag from its races.

“I promise you that statue’s coming down, I know that,” says Brion Whitley, a junior who plays on Murray State’s beloved men’s basketball team. “Our basketball team, we have maybe one White person and we’re the most adored people in the town. You can’t say that you don’t support racism or that you love our athletes here who are African American, and yet you don’t want a statue to be removed.

“Robert E. Lee stood for the Confederacy, which stood for keeping slaves, which is the oppression of African-Americans,” he continues. “You can’t play both sides. You can’t say, ‘I’m not racist, I support African-Americans — but I want the Robert E. Lee statue.’ Gotta choose one!”

This is hardly the first or only Confederate monument to cause controversy in the Bluegrass State, which was not a part of the Confederacy. “That’s the number one thing for me,” Neal quips. “Like, y’all realize you didn’t quite jump ship?” In spite of that fact, following Monday’s removal of a Louisville statue of Confederate Major John B. Castleman, 47 Confederate monuments remain in Kentucky. For comparison, there are just seven Union monuments in the state — despite the fact that more than twice as many Kentuckians fought for the Union as for the Confederacy, including an estimated 24,000 Black soldiers.

As Neal explained in his letter:

The construction and dedication of the statue in 1917 coincided with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the… area, adoption of the neo-Confederate sponsored “lost cause” myth, lynchings, and concerted state efforts to curtail civil rights for Black citizens. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, does not have significant historical ties to the city or Murray civil war veterans serving in the Confederacy. [The Murray statue is the only significant monument to Lee in the state, who didn’t fight in the Western Theatre and likely visited the state only in passing; notably, Lee himself resisted the idea of monuments to the Confederacy.]

Neal was aware of this history before moving to Murray a year and a half ago — he played cornerback a few hours away at Middle Tennessee State and then got his law degree from West Virginia University. That didn’t stop him, though, from being a little thrown when he Googled “Murray, Kentucky” after his former teammates first recruited him to join their coaching staff, and the first thing that came up was a large Confederate monument. “I realized that they use the slogan, ‘the friendliest city in America,’” he says, calling it “false advertising.”

“If ‘history is history,’ that’s history according to people who typically aren’t friends with a lot of Black people,” he says.

Neal says his family was welcomed when he first moved to town; neighbors brought them cookies and mowed their lawn. “It’s not a town where you’re going to see a lot of overt racism, but there are residual issues,” he adds. “There are enough relationships around that allow people to validate themselves as not being racist, and it’s isolated enough to where they never have to confront the systemic issues. You can grow up and live here and just never see that a lot of things exist.”

“I definitely think there is racism in Murray, but it’s a lot more passive,” says Arakelyan, who is Armenian. “People know they’re racist, but they don’t want to admit it. They know what they’re doing is wrong, but they try to dilute it with more subtle comments here and there that really show who they are.”

“You hear a lot of ‘Oh, I would never date a Black guy’ type things that you really don’t hear in Florida,” says Whitley, who grew up in Sarasota. “It’s a little different.”

Since George Floyd’s killing, there have been protests, prayer vigils, and other events around Murray and the surrounding Jackson Purchase region of the state. While these events may not look as confrontational as the marches happening in bigger cities, they’ve drawn triple-digit crowds that have surprised locals, especially given that students are mostly at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The turnout and focus of the protests was boosted by Neal’s letter, though he didn’t attend. Some marches concluded at the memorial, as protesters called for it to be removed.

“I never thought I would be involved in something like this; I never thought this day would come,” says Honeycutt, who attended a few of the week’s gatherings against racism. He’d never been to a protest before. “I’d only seen it in movies and stuff. It felt unreal like I was a part of what my grandparents used to walk for back in the day. When you see the pictures and videos where they used to get hosed and bitten by dogs, I felt like I was a part of that.”

Unfortunately, Honeycutt’s experience had more in common with the brutal violence experienced by his forebears than he probably bargained for. Separately, two vigilantes attempted to disrupt a protest on June 2. The first pointed a gun at Honeycutt and other protesters through the window of his car before he was arrested. The second parked alongside the protest, pulling out a .38 revolver and pointing it at Honeycutt through the window.

“I’m telling people to back up, like this dude has a gun, and he just looks like anything would piss him off and he’d shoot,” says Honeycutt. Instead, his fellow protesters tried to fight back. “He put the gun down and reached in his glove compartment, and that’s when he got the pepper spray bottle and sprayed all of us,” he continues. “But when he was reaching, I didn’t know what he was reaching for — all I knew was it was something black, so I was starting to push people out of the way, and as I did that I got maced.”

Both men, one of whom came from a town about an hour away called Paducah and one of whom was a Murray resident, were arrested and charged. Honeycutt is confident that having his eyes sting for a few hours will eventually be worth it. “I can see that since this started, a lot of heads have been changing,” he says. “A lot of people have started to see why we say ‘Black lives matter’ and not ‘All lives matter’ right now. Because a lot of people, they think Black lives don’t matter.”

As the protests die down, Neal’s fight hasn’t gotten easier. He’s already received enough threats that he’s been putting them on a map; his neighbors have told him they’re taking down the license plate numbers of trucks that have been tailing him as he runs.

“I have probably heard ‘Goddamn n — , go home n — ’ more times than I have in my life combined, and I’ve heard it a good amount of times,” he says. “There’s definitely a history, and those sentiments really live here. There are some pretty bold threats coming through.”

Neal insists, though, that he won’t be moved. “For them, it’s a new situation being in fear,” he says. “Not that I’m in fear, but that’s just what happens: When I go in stores, I’m being followed. When I go hang around certain places or talk a certain way, interact with the police… I feel equally as threatened by the police as by any random person.”

“I think the people that feel vulnerable right now are the people that are in the wrong,” he insists. “I don’t feel vulnerable. I think the people that oppose this probably do because they see that the change is coming that they’ve been trying to resist for a long time.”

Neal has a spot on the county court’s agenda on June 17, with a proposal to move the statue on July 4. He’s earned the support of Governor Andy Beshear, who told the press that while he wasn’t familiar with the Murray Confederate memorial, “if it is at a courthouse, it oughta come down. “I know that might cause some disagreement,” he continued, “but having a Confederate monument on courthouse grounds is not the right thing. Should have done it long ago, but let’s get rid of it now.”

Last week, the Murray City Council unanimously passed a resolution to pursue removal of the statue; NBA phenom Ja Morant, who attended Murray State, sent Judge Imes a letter of his own. “We can’t change the culture of racism until we change the celebration of racism,” he wrote. The final decision still rests with Imes, but pressure is mounting from all sides — spurred almost wholly by Neal’s letter.

“The longer this goes on, the more I realize it has to happen,” Neal says of finally closing the book on Murray’s Confederate past. “People have recently been killed for doing the same thing I’m trying to do right now, which to me is no different than when we’re talking about police tactics and the criminal justice system overall. It may seem small, but maybe one less person will be killed if this results in a knee not being applied to somebody’s throat. You have to start somewhere.”

The protests have made the centuries-old inequality that is literally set in stone in Murray and around the country seem newly fallible. What was once entrenched and immovable looks more ready than ever to be turned upside-down, literally and figuratively.

“Maybe once it’s removed, more people here will ask, ‘Who are those people that put [the memorial] there for 100 years?’” Neal adds. “‘Are some of them still in that courthouse that perpetuated it? Let’s have a discussion with them in November.’ That’s where the next change comes. Maybe if you’re one of the people protesting and you got a gun pointed at you, or you got maced, you come back in five years and you’re that prosecutor.”

“It isn’t far-fetched, that’s what happened to me. It’s concrete and it’s tangible and it’s all tied to that rock — which is why we have to keep focused on getting it out of here.”