Decades-old photo of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Confederate flag lives on and on

Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal

The photo has circulated for years, shared on Twitter feeds and political sites when issues of racism and discrimination dominate the news: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, much younger than he is now, smiling beside another white man in front of a Confederate battle flag.

The Kentucky Democratic Party, for example, uses the picture periodically and featured it again in a pair of blog posts criticizing the Louisville Republican this summer.

The photo got a wave of attention last year after a racist picture from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook turned up and Northam admitted to once wearing shoe polish on his face for a Michael Jackson costume.

And it has popped up lately on social media as people protest against racism and police brutality.

"I think he owes the public an explanation," Kentucky Democratic Party spokeswoman Marisa McNee said of the photo. "If he wouldn’t stand in front of a Confederate flag today, he needs to be able to say, 'I shouldn’t have done that.'"

The history behind the photo of McConnell, now 78, is somewhat obscure.

The photo is believed to have originated in the early 1990s at a Big Spring Country Club event held by the Louisville-based John Hunt Morgan Camp 1342 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of men who are descendants of Confederate soldiers.

A screen capture from a Kentucky Democratic Party blog shows a picture of Senate Majority Leader in front of a Confederate battle flag. The picture, taken decades ago, is often shared on social media by McConnell critics.

From apartheid to affirmative action:McConnell's complicated history on race

Adjutant Bill Hayes of John Hunt Morgan Camp 1342 told The Courier Journal the camp has very few members left who were around in the early '90s. He once asked an older member about the photo, who told him it was taken at one of their events where McConnell was invited to speak.

McConnell himself, in an interview with The Courier Journal, said he thinks the photograph was taken during his first term in the Senate, which spanned from 1984 1990, at a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting in Louisville.

"My recollection of that is skimpy," he said of the photograph. "But the reason I was invited to come speak to them is because I am indeed the ancestor of a Confederate soldier, and I had looked up some information on him. And my recollection was that that’s what I talked about."

Looking back on it now, he said: "I don't regret going to speak to a group which at the time was not being considered, you know, a pariah in our society. I, over the years, have probably been to plenty of groups and shaken hands with a whole lot of people who didn’t agree with me."

Confederate iconography, including the battle flag, has long been controversial because of the Confederacy's well-documented history of racism and support for slavery.

McConnell — who grew up in the South when segregation was still legal and has described how his parents instilled him with a belief in civil rights — stressed that the fact that he appeared at the Sons of Confederate Veterans event is "not nearly as important" as the actions he took back then as a public official.

As an example, he pointed to his tenure as Jefferson County judge-executive in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he said he agreed to a consent decree in a federal court case concerning racial discrimination in the police department. Under that decree, he said the county government instituted affirmative action policies for hiring Black people.

"As you might imagine, this didn't go over very well with the Fraternal Order of Police," he said, and the union opposed him in his reelection campaign and "almost took me out."

Recently:Mitch McConnell says Biden's VP pick won't matter to voters

Then, during his first couple of years as a senator in the mid '80s, he supported legislation to put economic sanctions on the South African government's racist apartheid regime even though Republican President Ronald Reagan opposed it.

Referring back to the photo, he said: "I was there to talk about my ancestor, which I did. And everything else I was doing ... I think underscored that I was a vigorous opponent of racial discrimination. I showed it in county government. I almost (lost) a reelection over it because the FOP hated what I did, and I overrode President Reagan’s veto of the anti-apartheid act."

Debates over Confederate symbols have emerged again and again over the decades.

In 1993, then-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman ever elected to the Senate, urged her colleagues to refuse to renew a longstanding patent the United Daughters of the Confederacy had for an emblem featuring the Confederate flag. 

"The issue is whether or not Americans such as myself who believe in the promise of this country ... will have to suffer the indignity of being reminded time and time again that at one point in this country's history we were human chattel," she said at the time.

McConnell supported renewing the patent, citing his "reverence for my ancestors," but a majority of the Senate voted with Braun.

McConnell's great-great-grandfathers, James McConnell and Richard Daley, owned slaves.

He hasn't disputed that, although he didn't mention it in his memoir, "The Long Game." 

He did write that his great-grandfather enlisted as a Confederate soldier in 1863 at age 17.

In that book, he also talked about growing up in the South in the early 1950s and how he and many other boys back then "had great-grandparents who fought under Robert E. Lee, whose grandmothers belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy ..."

Read more:Mitch McConnell is dusting off tried-and-true reelection playbook

In a thread of recent postings on Twitter, Kentucky native and documentary filmmaker David Schankula connected the Moseley-Braun debate and McConnell's contrary stance to his appearance at a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting where the photo of him may have been taken. 

Schankula includes a snippet from a 1994 issue of Confederate Veteran magazine that notes McConnell spoke on behalf of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and says the senator was honored by the John Hunt Morgan Camp at their meeting on Oct. 23. 

In recent years, the public pressure on McConnell and other government officials to denounce and remove Confederate flags, monuments and names from places of honor has intensified. And since at least 2015, McConnell has expressed support for their removal in some instances.

After a white supremacist killed nine Black churchgoers attending a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, he agreed with the state's governor at the time, Nikki Haley, that the Confederate battle flag should no longer be displayed at that state's (or any other state's) Capitol.

"The Confederate Battle Flag means different things to different people, but the fact that it continues to be a painful reminder of racial oppression to many suggests to me at least that it's time to move beyond it, and that the time for a state to fly it has long since passed," he said then. 

That same summer, McConnell indicated he was OK with removing the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the Rotunda in the Kentucky Capitol, where a statue of former President Abraham Lincoln also stands.

"I don't think we ought to airbrush history. The Civil War did happen," McConnell said in an interview with WDRB News. "It just seems to me that Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln are not equal in stature, which is not to say that Jefferson Davis wasn't an important person in American history. He was. But I think there's a way to remember history in a quite less prominent fashion."

McConnell: A senator parroting Pelosi and Schumer won't get it done for Kentucky

Five years later, in June 2020, the statue of Davis was finally removed from the Rotunda.

Another statue of Jefferson Davis stands on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where McConnell and other congressional lawmakers work. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently proposed that Confederate statues like that should be removed from the Capitol. McConnell, on the other hand, said that decision is up to the individual states, which have the ability to choose which statues they want displayed.

"But what I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol and scrub out everybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery," he told reporters in June. "Look, as far as the statues are concerned, every state gets two. Any state can trade out ... if they choose to, and some actually are choosing to for one reason or another."

He did, however, indicate that he's fine with renaming military bases that bear the monikers of Confederate military officers — something President Donald Trump opposes. 

“If it’s appropriate to take another look at these names, I’m personally OK with that,” McConnell said. “Whatever is ultimately decided, I don’t have a problem with.”

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.