Judge Martin F. Clark Jr. has removed a portrait of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart from the Patrick County Circuit Court’s courtroom, according to a statement from Clark.
The statement, which Clark released Tuesday, states that he removed the portrait on Aug. 19 and outlines his reasons for doing so: principally that a courtroom must be a neutral location, and it cannot be neutral if it contains a powerful symbol of the Confederacy.
“The courtroom should be a place every litigant and spectator finds fair and utterly neutral,” Clark wrote in the statement. “In my estimation, the portrait of a uniformed Confederate general – and a slave owner himself – does not comport with that essential standard.”
Clark writes that he is aware his decision will upset many residents of the county, particularly given that the courthouse is located in a town named in Stuart’s honor.
“Still, it is my goal – and my duty as a judge – to provide a trial setting that is perceived by all participants as fair, neutral and without so much as a hint of prejudice,” Clark writes. “Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African-Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history.”
Clark goes on to cite a number of historical documents, particularly the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, which he describes as “the legal and philosophical grounds recited by the Southern States for leaving the Union.”
“South Carolina, according to its declaration, felt wronged because of ‘an increasing hostility on the part of non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery,’” Clark writes. “Mississippi’s main reason for leaving the Union is unmistakably framed and repeated early and often in its causes document: ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.’ The Mississippi document goes on to condemn the notion of ‘equality, socially and politically,’ and finds fault with Mississippi residents being denied ‘the right of property in slaves.’”
“And, finally,” Clark continues, “lest there be any doubt exactly why black Americans might legitimately find the symbols of the Confederacy unsettling, here are the words of the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens, on the subject of slavery and race: ‘Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the (African American) is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’”
Historically, Clark writes, Confederate symbols always have been “imbued with the conviction of black inferiority,” and that the dispute over slavery is at the very core of the Civil War.
“The Civil War was about finances and states’ rights in the sense that the departing nation insisted it be allowed to hold and recapture slaves to support its economy,” Clark writes. “Again, a section from Mississippi’s causes declaration vividly illustrates precisely what economic concerns and what states’ rights were on the South’s agenda: ‘[Slave] labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.’”
The fact that debates over the Confederate flag have become so divisive is evidence in itself of the power that symbols can hold, Clark writes, and “we do not need this complication in a courtroom.”
However, Clark writes, there will be no change in the current policy regarding demonstrations and events in the court square outside the building, including celebrations of General J.E.B. Stuart’s birthday.
Several years ago, Clark writes, he told organizers of these events that they could continue bringing and displaying Confederate flags, though the flags could not be flown on the courthouse pole and could not be left behind after the event. That same policy holds for wreaths and decorations containing Confederate themes, Clark writes.
“Despite my disdain for all versions of the Confederacy’s flag, despite the patently offensive character of the these flags, and despite my belief that no one will take us seriously if we continue to insist these emblems represent who we are in 2015, this particular courthouse space – the courtyard – is still the functional equivalent of the town square, a marketplace for speech, ideas and discourse,” Clark writes. “While we as a legal system and a commonwealth cannot and should not sponsor or endorse what private individuals wish to say, we should also zealously defend their Constitutional right to speak and present their positions. A public space, outside the courtroom, on a weekend or when court is not in session, is a far different creature than the formal place of business for the judiciary.”
Clark concludes his statement by mentioning his Southern roots and pride in the region.
“I’m proud to live in Patrick County, proud to live in the South,” Clark writes. “I’m proud of our music, our food, our literature, our accomplishments in every possible field, our manners and traditions, our sense of connection with our neighbors, our quiet sacrifices, our grit and courage throughout generations, our savvy and intelligence, and the rhythms, feel and strength of this slice of the world.”
“That’s my Southern heritage, and it’s far, far distant from the battlefields of the 1860s,” he concludes.
Clark declined further comment outside of his statement.
To read Clark’s complete statement, visit www.martinsvillebulletin.com.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!