Taylor Batten

Courage in the courtroom

The removed J.E.B. Stuart portrait.
The removed J.E.B. Stuart portrait. WSLS

For a lot of folks in Stuart, Va., eight miles north of the N.C. line, there are few things more offensive than disrespecting Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart.

Their town was named in honor of him, after all. Remembrances of his Civil War service dot the place. And a good number of residents still hold up Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee as sacrosanct war heroes.

Amid all this comes Martin F. Clark, a Phi Beta Kappa from Davidson College (class of ’81) and a best-selling author of four novels. He is also the presiding judge in Stuart.

This month, in a move that will win him very few friends, Clark announced that he had personally removed Stuart’s portrait from the Patrick County Circuit Court’s courtroom. County supervisors on Monday are expected to discuss what to do with the painting.

“The backlash,” the Martinsville Bulletin reports, “has been significant.”

Some residents speculate that next Clark will want to change the name of the town itself and remove monuments. History is history, they argue, and some politically correct judge shouldn’t try to erase it by removing the portrait of a man who has been dead for 150 years. The Mount Airy News speculates that Clark did it to sell more books.

The debate comes at a time of renewed awareness of the offensive nature of Confederate symbols to some residents, African-American and not. It features some of the same arguments that were heard on each side when South Carolina took down the Confederate flag following the murder of nine black church-goers in Charleston.

Clark, though, issued a 2,000-word explanation that describes, with uncommon eloquence and persuasiveness, why he removed the portrait.

“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. Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African-Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history. Bigotry saturates the Confederacy’s founding principles, its racial aspirations and its public pronouncements,” Clark wrote.

Having Stuart’s portrait in the courtroom creates an environment that some litigants might not find neutral, Clark said.

“By way of example, I’ll ask my fellow white Patrick Countians how they’d respond to this scenario: Imagine walking into a courtroom, your liberty at stake, and you discover a black judge, a black bailiff, a black commonwealth’s attorney, a black clerk and a black defense lawyer. You are the only white person there. You peer at the wall, and you see a picture of Malcom X – a Nation of Islam member who preached black superiority and demeaned the white race. What assumptions would you make about that courtroom, the judicial system and the black judge who allowed that portrait to remain on the wall? Would you feel certain that you’d receive fair, unbiased treatment with Malcolm X celebrated and honored in the place where your rights are being adjudicated? I would not, and that’s why General Stuart’s portrait has been removed.”

It was a courageous move, given its unpopularity. It might even cost Clark his job when his current term ends. He will ultimately be regarded as being on the right side of history, though, and I bet he’s sleeping better at night.

Email: tbatten@charlotte

observer.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.