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REX NELSON: Rushing into irrelevance

by Rex Nelson | July 1, 2020 at 10:40 a.m.

It was perhaps the largest gathering in Arkansas history. An estimated 140,000 people--including almost 12,000 veterans of the Civil War--showed up in Little Rock from May 16-18, 1911, for the annual United Confederate Veterans reunion.

"The United Confederate Veterans began in 1889 with a goal of keeping alive the memory of the men who fought for the South during the Civil War, along with bringing national attention to the needs of the aging veterans," Ray Hanley writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The reunion was one of the group's major projects, and towns across the country vied to host the event. Judge William M. Kavanaugh chaired Little Rock's planning committee. Subcommittees arranged for lodging, food, special events and entertainment for veterans. They negotiated set rates at hotels and restaurants, created additional lodging at schools and private homes and built special barracks and tent camps.

"The city erected a veterans' camp at City Park (now MacArthur Park). The camp was named for a Confederate colonel, Mena native Robert Glenn "Fighting Bob" Shaver of the Seventh Arkansas Infantry. Shaver served as commander of the camp during the reunion. Accommodations at Camp Shaver were arranged by state, division and corps to expedite the attendees reuniting with old friends. Events at the reunion included speeches by Little Rock Mayor Charles Taylor and Arkansas Gov. George Donaghey. Various groups in Little Rock provided entertainment and special events, including receptions, arcades, dances, hot air balloon rides, plus the dedication at City Park of a statue honoring the Capital Guards."

At 10 a.m. on May 18, 1911, the biggest parade in state history stretched from the Old State House to City Park. The reunion concluded that evening with a ball attended by an estimated 5,800 people.

The last remnant of that landmark event--the aforementioned statue--came down in the dark of night last month following a decision by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Across the country, statues have been torn down, both by mobs in the streets and by elected officials rushing to jump aboard the virtue-signaling bandwagon.

Many Confederate statues across the state are better suited for cemeteries than courthouse lawns. All should include interpretive signage to explain the so-called Lost Cause era when they were erected. This statue is different due to its association with the huge 1911 gathering. The folks at Little Rock City Hall didn't consult with historians before taking action. It's indicative of the clumsy fashion in which city government so often does things.

I like Scott. He's young and energetic. He loves the city he serves, his heart is in the right place, and he works hard. That's more than we can say for a number of our elected officials. Scott's primary failings since taking office in January 2019 have come when he has let his emotions get the best of him; the times he has rushed into decisions without obtaining the facts.

There were his actions following an officer-involved shooting; actions that occurred before an investigation could be done. Subsequent inquiries concluded that the shooting was justified. Scott's involvement unduly increased the tension in the Little Rock Police Department. There was also his march with protesters outside the state Capitol. I would have had no problem with that decision had he led the protesters back toward the Capitol and then urged them to go home before the start of the curfew he had declared. Instead, Scott marched away from the Capitol. The mayor's security detail got him into a vehicle when the crowd became unruly. The end results of that march were threats against reporters along with vandalism on the main block of the city's financial district, a block on which there was inexplicably no visible LRPD presence.

In the case of the Capital Guards statue, Scott again let his emotions get the best of him. His after-the-fact written statement had a cookie-cutter feel to it, like something an ad agency had cranked out for elected officials across the country. There was no sense of place, no sense of history and no real context to the statement. There was--because the city had failed to do its homework--no recognition of how this statue is different from other Confederate monuments across the state. These kinds of follow-the-crowd actions kill any relevance they might have had. Folks shrug and simply say, "I'm not surprised." A public debate would have been healthy.

When it comes to Confederate statues, we often hear the line "put them in a museum." Well, this one was already at a museum, the city's MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in the historic Tower Building. Maybe it would be best to move it to the back of the museum or even inside rather than having it out front. But MacArthur Park-- not a cemetery--is exactly where this one needs to be because of the 1911 reunion. It should include the proper interpretive signage about that massive event.

Just as Russellville could learn how to build a casino by watching often maligned Pine Bluff, Little Rock could learn a thing or two from that southeast Arkansas city. Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson began discussions with the United Daughters of the Confederacy more than a year ago, allowing the group time to raise the money needed to move a statue from the Jefferson County Courthouse to a cemetery. He didn't spring the action on his constituents. Little Rock still has a lot to learn.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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