WASHINGTON — As the nation’s top thoroughbreds prepare to burst out of the starting gates in the Kentucky Derby’s 142nd year, issues stemming from race relations gallop along with them. The race, on Saturday, generally draws around 266,000 visitors every year. But nearby, playing out in courtrooms, a battle over a Confederate monument is underway.
Last Friday, University of Louisville president James Ramsey and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer held a surprise press conference to announce a Confederate monument would be moved ‘‘to a more appropriate place.’’ That place is yet to be determined. The 70-foot-tall monument, which was erected in 1895 and includes three bronze statues of Confederate soldiers, stands near the Speed Art Museum, FOX News reported.
‘‘We don’t consider ourselves in Louisville to be part of the South,’’ the mayor later told the Courier-Journal.
Kentucky was not part of the Confederacy. Along with the other ‘‘border states’’ — Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland — it was a slave state but never seceded from the Union during the Civil War.
The announcement came about a week after Ricky Jones, a University of Louisville professor of Pan-African studies, wrote an op-ed in the Courier-Journal, demanding the monument, which he referred to as a ‘‘towering granite and bronze eyesore glorifying the nadir of America’s past,’’ be removed.
‘‘I can’t tell you how happy I am,’’ Jones told FOX News after the surprise announcement. ‘‘I think this statue being on the campus is somewhat akin to flying the Confederate flag over the (university’s) administration building.’’
His excitement may have been premature.
On Monday, Jefferson Circuit Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman issued a restraining order forbidding the city of Louisville from removing the statue, according to WKYT. The order was sought by Everett Corley, a Republican real estate agent running for Congress, who filed a lawsuit against Fischer; Corley called removing the statue akin to ‘‘book burning,’’ WDRB reported.
‘‘This monument was not built to glorify either side of the Civil War,’’ Corley said of the statue, which has ‘‘To Our Confederate Dead’’ and ‘‘A Tribute to the Rank and File of the Armies of the South’’ inscribed in it. ‘‘It was to soberly and solemnly remember the countless thousands of veterans killed in the slaughter of war.’’
That same day, Mayor Fischer revealed the formation of a historic preservation task force that would find new ways to honor the city’s heritage.
A hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Thursday to consider Corley’s motion for a full temporary injunction.
The Derby, which begins three days later, comes with a long history of racial strife.
In many ways, that strife is at the center of Hunter S. Thompson’s famous 1970 piece about the Derby titled ‘‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.’’ The story contains all the traditional characteristics of a Thompson piece — rampant alcohol and drug use, biting commentary, larger-than-life characters — but at its center is the fear of a race riot occurring at the event and an anxious sense of the strained racial relations in America at the time.
Most notably, in 1967, all Derby Week events were canceled, including the annual parade, due to civil rights protests. The Ku Klux Klan announced it would attend that year’s race in full garb, prepared to impose its own kind of order, according to The Awl.
Black jockeys didn’t fare much better than the fans. In 1961, Jimmy Winkfield, who had ridden winners in the Derby in 1901 and 1902 — the last African American to ride a winner in the race — was invited by Sports Illustrated to watch the Derby at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. When he arrived, he was told he couldn’t enter through the front door, CNN reported.
A piece from History.com titled ‘‘The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Black Jockeys’’ explains why so few African Americans won, or even participated in racing in the 1900s:
‘‘Emboldened by the societal changes, resentful white jockeys at northern raceways conspired to force blacks off the track, in some cases literally. During the 1900 racing season, white jockeys in New York warned trainers and owners not to mount any black riders if they expected to win. They carried out their threats by boxing in black jockeys and riding them into-and sometimes over-the rails. In a cruel irony, free sons of former slaves felt the sting of whips directed their ways during races. Race officials looked the other way. Owners realized that black riders had little chance of winning given the interference.’’