The city of Lexington carried out a surprise removal of two controversial Confederate statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County courthouse Tuesday evening and early Wednesday.
At about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, police arrived on Main Street and blocked off the area around the statue of John C. Breckinridge, closing one lane of traffic as workers arrived with crane equipment.
Within an hour, dozens of spectators had gathered to watch workers lift the statue of Breckinridge and then wrap it in tarp. The crowd occasionally erupted in cheers while many filmed the event and posted it to social media.
A Tuesday opinion by Attorney General Andy Beshear opened the door for the city to begin the removal of the statues.
The city had previously said that the board of the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission had to approve the removal of the statues. But Beshear’s opinion said the commission does not have jurisdiction.
The city issued a release Tuesday night saying that “Attorney General Andy Beshear has issued an opinion that the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission does not have jurisdiction over the statues.”
“We discovered the city council did not authorize the mayor to give up local authority to the state Military Heritage Commission in 2003,” Mayor Jim Gray said in a statement. “That action wasn’t lawful, and it is void. The Attorney General confirmed our finding this morning. That means our local authority remains intact; this is a local decision, as it should be. This council has unanimously supported moving the statues to the Lexington Cemetery. The cemetery trustees have voiced their conditional approval. That’s what we intend to do.”
Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said they tried to contact the commission Tuesday but did not get a response. The city sent the commission the attorney general’s opinion. It’s not clear if the commission will challenge the city’s decision to take down the statues. No one from the commission could be reached late Tuesday.
The statues of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and Breckinridge, a former U.S. Vice President and the last Confederate Secretary of War, have stood in downtown Lexington for more than 130 years.
At 12:07 a.m. Wednesday, almost six hours after crews arrived the site, the statue of John Hunt Morgan was lifted by crane onto a flat-bed semi truck. A small crowd was still on hand and let out a cheer when the statue was lifted from it’s base.
The statues were moved to a private storage facility until the city finalizes details of an agreement with the Lexington Cemetery, city officials said.
DeBraun Thomas, one of the organizers of Take Back Cheapside, which has pushed for the removal of the statues, was one of the spectators.
“There were plenty of people that said that we were crazy and that nobody was going to listen to us,” Thomas said as he broadcast live on Facebook as the Breckinridge statue was taken down. “This is what happens when the power of the people stand together. Take this moment right now, Lexington, and enjoy it.”
Lexington Vice Mayor Steve Kay also watched as the statues came down.
“We’ve been working on this for quite a while,” Kay said. “So many things had to fall into place. So many people had to agree to everything. And to have it actually happen right now is terrific.”
The city said Mayor Teresa Isaac signed an application in 2003 asking that the statues be designated as Kentucky Military Heritage sites, but the Lexington council never voted on the request. Isaac signed the application at the request of a private citizen. Isaac has not commented on why she signed the petition.
Beshear ruled Tuesday that Isaac wasn’t authorized to do that without the council’s approval.
But the city kept the attorney general’s opinion a secret until Tuesday night.
Neither the request for the attorney general’s opinion by the city nor the contents of that decision was discussed by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council during an open meeting Tuesday. The council was told of Beshear’s opinion Tuesday during a closed-door session. The council is allowed to discuss a limited number of issues behind closed doors.
Straub said they believed city officials could brief the council on the attorney general’s opinion because it could involve potential litigation, one of the reasons an elected body can discuss something in secret.
Jon Fleischaker, a lawyer who specializes in open meetings, said discussing an attorney general’s opinion might meet the threshold for that exemption.
“You have to have actual or threatened litigation,” Fleischaker said. “It can not be hypothetical.”
The Lexington council voted unanimously in August to move the statues, and the board of the Lexington Cemetery tentatively agreed to take them last month.
Both Breckinridge and Morgan are buried at the cemetery, and private donors are providing an endowment to pay for the upkeep and security of the statues there.
The city said Tuesday that the removal and planned relocation of the statues is being paid for primarily with private funds and through donations.
Gray called for the removal of the statues on Aug. 12, as conflict flared between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., that left three people dead and others injured. After that violence, dozens of people came before the Lexington council to plead that the statues be removed.
Some white nationalists said in August that they planned to come to protest the removal of the statues.