In a 6-3 vote, Blue Ribbon Commission members recommended that the city keep its General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues in their current Lee Park and Court Square locations, though the committee’s chairman Don Gathers voted otherwise.
“We as a commission and as a city missed an opportunity here to show some real progress,” Gathers says.
Mayor Mike Signer created the commission on race, memorials and public spaces after Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy called for a rally to remove the Lee statue from Lee Park in March, because some members of the community have been offended by the celebration of Confederate heroes in a post-Civil War era.
“It is my sincere belief that for us to take no action, which in essence is what I personally feel that we’ve done, means that we have bowed down to a segment of society in our area that has no real relevance here anymore,” Gathers says about the November 1 vote to let the statues stay. His commission was elected to evaluate the presence of similar statutes in town and recommend to City Council what should be done with them.
He continues, “Unfortunately, the commission didn’t vote to capture the lightning in a bottle when we had the chance to do so.”
The controversy has been fueled by passion, he says, and members of the public at each meeting have spoken strongly about either keeping the memorials in place, further contextualizing them or moving them out of their public parks and into private areas.
And each idea, either presented by the public or the commission, has been heavily criticized. But Gathers says he hasn’t taken the scrutiny to heart—“I’ve refereed high school and college basketball for over 20 years,” he says, laughing. “I’m used to criticism.”
One of his ideas, which he says most of the commission members seemed interested in at one point, was moving the statues to McIntire Park because Paul Goodloe McIntire gave them to the city in the early 1900s.
“I couldn’t think of a better place for them to reside than in the park named after him,” Gathers says.
From 6-9pm on November 10 at Walker Upper Elementary School, the Blue Ribbon Commission will present to the public a portion of the final recommendation it will make to City Council on December 19. Time will be set aside for public comment.
Gathers says commissioners will further explain the recommendation to contextualize the memorials in their respective parks with a more expanded version of the history the statues represent.
“There are some who don’t know for certain that that particular [task] can be accomplished,” Gathers says. “That was a real concern throughout the discussions.”
And what will those contextualizations look like? It’s up in the air.
“I think the plan was to pretty much leave that up to Council,” he says.