Commentary: Forrest debate has wasted time, marred Tennessee’s reputation

Butch Eley, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration, leads Thursday's meeting of the Tennessee Capitol Commission. (Photo: Tennessee Capitol Commission video)
Butch Eley, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration, leads Thursday's meeting of the Tennessee Capitol Commission. (Photo: Tennessee Capitol Commission video)

Thursday was a momentous day in Tennessee, more momentous than it should have been, for a decision was reached that should never have been difficult. 

The Tennessee Capitol Commission voted to remove the bust of Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest from its perch on the second floor of the Capitol. 

Much pain and drama could have been saved if the same body had approved a request to move the bust in 2017 when it was last asked to vote. Since that time, there have been hundreds of protests about the bust and the arrests of hundreds of activists.

  This is your chance to bring Tennessee out of the Old South, to not use symbols to harass and intimidate people of color.   – Rep. G.A. Hardaway

While we dithered, the Mississippi legislature voted to retire the state flag, the last in the nation featuring the Confederate battle flag. 

Tennessee has lost so much time over what could and should have been a simple decision. 

At almost the same time Thursday the Capitol Commission was meeting, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley spoke decisively on U.S. Army bases that are named after Confederate leaders: “It was an act of treason, at the time, against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution.”

Where are our Gen. Milleys? 

Why so many of Tennessee’s leaders struggle to realize what others do – that we can remember our history without honoring those who rebelled against the U.S. – can lead many to the conclusion we have a bunch of racists in office. 

How else to explain the unspeakably disrespectful and patronizing way Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) addressed his Black colleagues Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) Harold Love (D-Nashville), and Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville?

How else can we explain why Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), announced in his introductory comments before the Capitol Commission, that he represents the home county of the Sons of Confederate Veterans? 

Hensley, who excused Forrest’s behavior by saying the late general was misunderstood – hey: he was nice to the people he formerly owned! – is no one to give lectures on morality. 

Hensley was charged with prescribing controlled substances to family members and to an employee with whom he was in a “personal relationship.” The employee was also his cousin. Chew on that while you think about him saying Forrest – slave trader, traitor – deserves to be honored. 

The great American writer Mark Twain made famous a saying that “it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought stupid than open it and remove all doubt” but it’s clear neither Hensley nor Sparks are familiar with the saying.

Meanwhile, Hardaway spoke with dignity of the need to move on.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-92). chair of the Tennessee Legislator Black Caucus.

“This is your chance to bring Tennessee out of the Old South, to not use symbols to harass and intimidate people of color,” he said. 

The Tennessee Historical Commission, which won’t likely meet until October, must approve the Capitol Commission’s recommendation. 

It’s past time to wrap this saga up so let’s hope the members of the Historical Commission agree with their colleagues, put Gen. Forrest to rest in the Tennessee State Museum, and bring Hardway’s words to fruition.