This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.
Toddlers yelling, running around the hardwood floors and leaving cracker crumbs on the ground. A laptop screen dented by a soup can dropped by a kid. At one point, a room covered from ceiling to floor with hand prints after kids were left alone with a paint can.
But for the moment, Sherman Neal’s kids — two-year-old Skyler and three-year-old Jett — are on the leather couch, fixated on another “Max & Ruby” cartoon.
“This is a warm up one before jumping off the couch,” Neal said with a hint of apprehension and a smile.“There’s no running right now. It’s pretty calm.”
“Usually what we’re doing is cleaning up messes half of the day,” Neal’s wife, Rikki, added from across the living room. “We’ve had some more light bulbs — they see a light bulb, and they’ll throw it.”
Yet despite the moments of chaos, this is family time 31-year-old Neal, who shares a name with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, has truly never had until now. For years, he was away from his wife and kids pursuing a career and serving his country as a U.S. Marine, commanding a platoon on a California base and in the Middle East coordinating supplies for Marines in several countries.
He wasn’t there in person when his wife went into labor with their daughter Skyler, having just arrived in Kuwait for his second deployment. He heard his daughter for the first time through a Skype call, but he didn’t get to be with her during her first seven months of life. He hadn’t lived with his wife since they got married in 2015 until recently.
Their Murray, Kentucky, home they purchased last year is where, in many ways, his life is just beginning.
“Why would I be sitting in the desert in California by myself in 120 degrees, but I could just quit,” Neal said. “But I was doing it because these guys I’m talking about working with, I owe them that. Now I owe them that, I owe my kids that, I owe my family that.”
Neal had declined to pursue a further career in the armed forces after five years of active duty, instead chasing a dream of coaching football. That dream started by sending dozens of letters and emails to coaches across the country, eventually networking into volunteer coaching opportunities.
Murray State took a chance on him for his first real coaching job as an offensive and special teams analyst. So Murray — population 19,327 — ended up being his family’s new home. But before he took the job, he did a little internet research on the town.
The first thing he saw was a picture of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Specifically, a statue of Lee, installed in 1917 on Calloway County courthouse grounds and funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
On June 1, Neal spoke about his family and his children in an open letter to Murray and Calloway County leadership that subsequently embroiled the quiet college town in protests and calls for action. His target: that statue.
Neal never mentioned in the letter that he was a football coach, a veteran, or an attorney licensed in two states, having graduated from West Virginia University College of Law on a full ride fellowship. He only said he was a resident of Murray, and a Black man. He wanted to see what title people would choose and how people would address him without any labels.
“If you write that as an attorney, do you get the same attention that you’d write it as a Marine?”
Since then, the response has been roaring, bringing nationwide media attention to the small town.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, Murray State University and former Murray State basketball star Ja Morant have also all called for the removal of the statue. An online petition calling for its removal as of Thursday has more than 9,700 signatures; another petition opposing the removal has over 2,500 signatures. The debate has spilled into the streets, as protesters called for the monument’s removal. Some of those demonstrators were sprayed with pepper spray by white men from out of town.
Neal said he’s received online messages threatening violence against him, some using racial slurs. He said he knew the risk of publishing the letter, but the risk of complacency and losing an opportunity to remove a symbol of racist intimidation from an outdated era was even greater.
“There’s nobody with a cape that’s coming out of the phone booth to come save me,” Neal said. “If you have the training in and the ability to do something and you choose not to under the current circumstances that we’re in, then you’re okay with it, and you’re complicit with what’s going on.”
Upstairs in the Neal home, the kids have a space-themed fort with galaxies and stars swirling on the cover; Neal went to a space camp in fourth grade and wanted to be an astronaut for years. On the shelves of the play room are books highlighting figures like Harriet Tubman, who used the stars to guide people to freedom, and Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space.
“Just like that statue’s a symbol to discourage us from pursuing certain jobs or professions or justice, you know, what’s not up there are people like Harriet Tubman or Mae Jemison,” Neal said, pointing to the books on the shelf. “So, just with tearing down, you have to build up. Every girl should know that she can be an astronaut.”
It’s a message of embracing dreams and speaking up that he ultimately wants to pass down to his children, he said. Seizing the momentum of nationwide protests in large cities and small towns alike calling for racial justice and police accountability, the will to publish that open letter wasn’t just a spur of the moment decision for him.
As Confederate monuments come down in larger cities across the country, Neal is on the forefront of battle similar to others taking place in smaller towns over what a community chooses to memorialize. At first, he stood alone in publishing that letter, using a voice he’s honed over the course of his life.
“Leading By Example”
Neal grew up in Naperville, Illinois, a west suburb of Chicago, going to parades in the ’90s celebrating the Chicago Bulls’ NBA championships.
A love for football started early, too, with memories of juking around the kitchen table and playing on Pop Warner football teams. He also doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t learning about slavery in the United States and the legacy of the Confederacy.
“There’s weekends where we go to Springfield — this is five hours away — and go to [Abraham] Lincoln’s tomb,” Neal said. “I got older and I realized everything has some context.”
One of the children’s books in his Murray home that he remembers reading as a child is “Pink and Say,” a story about a former slave, Pink, saving a white Union soldier, Say, and nursing him back to health. The two are eventually captured by Confederate marauders; Say is released, while Pink is hanged.
Neal also wrote a series of letters while serving in-school suspension in middle school, re-writing and replacing words in the Emancipation Proclamation and Declaration of Independence so that it would apply for students.
“My mom actually made me take that to the city council and petition against my assistant principal,” Neal said. “She had me doing things like that at an early age.”
He credits his mom, Michelle Neal, for much of his independent spirit. She came to the United States to escape civil war in Liberia, and became an immigration attorney in Chicago. Neal had dual-citizenship with Liberia until he renounced it to join the Marine Corps; his sister also represented Liberia in track and field in the 2016 African Championships.
He would wander the Chicago streets from his mom’s office near DePaul University, sometimes sitting in on meetings she had with people from diverse backgrounds, ranging from east African, Mexican, Swedish, Pakistani and more.
When the Trump administration announced a travel ban in 2017 on countries in the Middle East and Africa, Michelle Neal rushed to Chicago O’Hare Airport to help those in legal turmoil. Sherman Neal said her work has influenced his own choices.
“All the decisions that I’ve made involve some way shape or form of helping people, from a personal standpoint and career standpoint,” Neal said. “It’s not a ‘when you can,’ it’s like, ‘you shall and you’re gonna find a way.’ And it’s been leading by example.”
As he progressed further in his legal career in the armed forces, he began to notice more and more the context and history of the world around him.
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he played on special teams for Middle Tennessee University’s football team, he learned about the history of a “Johnny Rebel” Confederate monument, originally erected in front of the county courthouse, which a local historian believes was erected as a form of racist intimidation.
When he was in law school at West Virginia University, he learned about the effects of mass incarceration on minorities, with Black men serving prison sentences at almost six times the rate of white men.
And in the Marines, he learned that while institutions can be slow to change, change is not impossible. Neal recalled when he was preparing for his second deployment to serve as a logistics officer in Iraq he was boarding a bus that would take him and his fellow Marines to their plane. Near that bus door was a red Ford Bronco with a Confederate flag. His anger boiled over on the bus, and a friend had to calm him down.
“What you allow to happen on base is a choice, is a reflection of your values,” Neal said. “I personally never had like a line of people supporting me saying any of these things.”
Every year, he submitted feedback to the Marine Corps calling for the removal of Confederate symbols and flags from military installations. He didn’t see much change while he was in the Corps. But in the wake of recent nationwide protests, the Corps relented, banning public display of the battle flag including bumper stickers and mugs.
Now in Murray, he turns his gaze to Robert E. Lee next to the Calloway County courthouse.
In an open letter published by the Murray State History Department, faculty in the department said the statue represented a “Lost Cause ideology” similar to other Confederate monuments erected during that time frame, symbols of “white power and black oppression.”
Neal isn’t specifically advocating for the destruction of the statue, but says it needs to be removed because of the message it carries next to the courthouse. When he first arrived in Murray, he appreciated the historical markers and context provided by the Fort Donelson National Battlefield across the state border in Tennessee, a battlefield managed by the National Park Service.
But the county courthouse statue’s purpose isn’t to provide history or context, he said.
“You’re sending a message to Black people in the community,” Neal said. “With it having been built in 1917 and knowing about the genesis of where all these came from, I don’t know how you can make a legitimate argument that you’re not doing that.”
Inaction And Confrontation
Neal wore a grey suit and dark tie with a blue cloth face mask, notes jotted down on a Murray State-themed pad. Again, he stood alone.
On June 16, he approached the Calloway County Fiscal Court at their monthly meeting to address county leadership on why the monument should be removed. The monument was on county property, and therefore the decision whether to remove it is up to the county.
He didn’t have a prepared statement, but he didn’t need one. He said he felt more comfortable speaking from the heart.
“Nothing changes in this country or this community, or legally, without the will of the people behind it,” Neal told county Judge-Executive Kenny Imes and the county magistrates. “Robert E. Lee himself, who in fact is the man who’s on that statue, if nothing else he was a member of the United States Army before resigning his commission to become an enemy combatant. And for that reason alone, we should not have that man on public property.”
Imes had previously said he didn’t associate the statue with racism, but was willing to listen to Neal and others. Imes had said the fiscal court would need to get permission from the Kentucky Heritage Military Commission before taking action, as the Confederate monument is listed as a military heritage object. Imes in 2018 had also suggested he would need to be “hauled off” by federal marshals for the monument to be removed.
Going into the meeting, Neal was clear with his call to action: he wanted at least a resolution stating intent to remove the monument, even if the fiscal court couldn’t yet officially approve the removal. He sent county leadership the day before a 36-page document outlining his and other supporters’ platform.
“We have the opportunity right now to be an exemplar for what happens and what can happen when you handle these type of divisive issues in a civil manner, specifically in towns like this,” Neal added. “Rather than being what’s wrong, in having that statue be the manifestation of what’s wrong and being the beacon to everybody in the nation that we don’t care about the thoughts and feelings of others.”
The fiscal court also allowed another man to speak, this time opposing the removal. Murray resident Blake Hughes compared the removal to “cultural genocide” and said that advocates with “Marxist intent” were destroying history because “they hate us, our nation and our God.”
He also said he was worried the monument would be torn down outside the due process of government, and that people who haven’t lived in the county long were dictating historical interpretations of monuments to people who have lived in the county their entire life.
Imes didn’t side with either man. He decided to delay instead, in an effort to sort out “legal issues” regarding the monument that he didn’t specify.
For Neal, it meant disappointment and anger, his usually steady voice shaking.
“Am I a communist? Am I a citizen? Am I in the wrong place? Is it the wrong time? Just, you know, what sticks to the wall,” he said, referring to Hughes’ speech. “I dislike when people say the word ‘dog whistles,’ because it’s not. It’s overt calls to White supremacist groups to try to stop progress.”
After the meeting, Neal confronted Hughes, sparking a debate over the monument’s meaning, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the uncertain future ahead.
“How will removing the Robert E. Lee statue stop oppression? How will it stop police brutality?” Hughes asked.
“We can’t even get to the substantive talk because we’re stuck talking about a rock of an enemy combatant on public property,” Neal said. “So the actual, ‘will it stop?’ — the knee being placed on a neck — by removing that statue? Absolutely not. But we can get to that conversation.”
“Many people are not even waiting to go through the legal system to remove these statues. And where does it end? I mean, a lot of people in history have been remembered for great things and have done terrible things,” Hughes said.
“Here’s where it ends,” Neal said. “It ends when someone like you can not go into a courtroom and tell me that I don’t have the right to speak on a topic that’s afforded to me by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.”
The Fourteenth Amendment granted full citizenship to all persons born and naturalized in the United States, including those who were formerly enslaved.
Neal isn’t sure exactly what is next in the battle over a monument he brought into the national spotlight weeks ago. He plans to offer university facilities as an option for a forum on the statue. Over the course of several interviews, he mentioned Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued for integration and eventually became a Supreme Court Justice, as inspiration.
“If Thurgood Marshall can litigate for probably about ten years to strategize and get Brown v. Board of Education passed to get me to the point where I can be here now, coaching Black players and white players in the same place, I can probably go ten days, whatever struggle this is, to remove a symbol of segregation and hate.”
Sherman Neal is ready for a long march.