Public officials would be impeached for removing statues

By: - March 16, 2021 3:06 pm
The controversial bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest perches in the Tennessee Capitol's second floor, between the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The controversial bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest its former spot in the Tennessee Capitol between the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Two lawmakers who want to impeach any public official who removes statues from the Capitol’s second floor are tiptoeing around an amendment that appears to punish the governor for his efforts to relocate the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust.

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Hohenwald Republican, and Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, both said Tuesday their legislation would not oust Gov. Bill Lee for removal of the Forrest bust, which was approved last week by the Tennessee Historical Commission at the governor’s request. Hensley is set to present the bill Wednesday in a Senate committee. 

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The language, though, makes it clear a public official could be ousted for removing a historical statue.

Ragan took House Bill 1227 off notice but filed an amendment, as reported by the Tennessee Journal, saying it is illegal to “mutilate, deface, defile, abuse contemptuously, relocate, remove, conceal or obscure a privately owned monument, plaque, marker or memorial” honoring military service in the United States of America or Confederate States of America.

The amendment takes an even bigger step by stating, “the statues currently on the second floor of the state Capitol must never be altered, removed, concealed or obscured in any fashion without approval in accordance with this section and must be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.”

Gov. Lee gained approval from the Capitol Commission to request a waiver from the Historical Commission to relocate the busts.

A violation would be a Class C misdemeanor and if committed by a public official, it would be an impeachable offense and grounds for ouster, according to the filing. In addition, they would be liable for any fines, damages and penalties.

The initial legislation is designed to give House and Senate speakers more say over the makeup of the Historical Commission, which is appointed by the governor. Lee made several new appointments to the commission before it voted 25-1 to relocate the Forrest bust, along with those of U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves to the State Museum.

Asked if the legislation would lead to the governor’s impeachment if the busts are moved, Ragan said his amendment doesn’t say that. He noted someone would have to commit a felony to be impeached and that his amendment merely clarifies what is already set out in the criminal code.

“The issue, quite frankly, comes down to the methodology that’s employed and the fact that if anybody’s participating in that. … By the way if you read that amendment carefully, it doesn’t say he who authorizes it is impeached. There are specific things. You’ve got to violate those criminal codes, which is why I put them in there,” Ragan said.

Sen. Joey Hensley noted the director of the Historical Commission has already shown “disdain” for Sam Davis, known as the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” by saying he chose to be a “martyr.” A statue of Davis on the grounds of the Tennessee Capitol would be covered by the amendment. 

Hensley, meanwhile, said he didn’t think action surrounding the Forrest bust would be affected by the legislation because the governor has already gone through the process, despite the language describing treatment of busts on the Capitol’s second floor.

“He went through the channels doing that. This bill’s talking about … if somebody destroys a statue going forward. That’s just one of the possible penalties. But yeah, if the governor or any of the legislators, if we defaced the statue, destroyed one, did something illegally to them,” Hensley said.

Hensley also said he believes the governor has “gone through the process,” even by skipping the State Building Commission, which the House and Senate speakers believe should have considered the matter before the Historical Commission.

Statue of Sam Davis on the grounds of the Tennessee Capitol. (Photo: Tennessee Secretary of State)
Statue of Sam Davis on the grounds of the Tennessee Capitol. (Photo: Tennessee Secretary of State)

More than likely, Hensley said, the legislation could apply to statutes such as the Sam Davis monument on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds or the statues of Andrew Jackson on the Capitol lawn and second floor.

One of the main criticisms of Forrest is his career as a slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Jackson was a slave holder and owner of the Hermitage as well as U.S. president when Native Americans were evicted from the East and sent west on the Trail of Tears. Jackson was a veteran of wars against the British and Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles in Florida.

Hensley noted the director of the Historical Commission has already shown “disdain” for Sam Davis by saying he chose to be a “martyr” when he refused to tell who gave him sensitive information about Union troop movements before he was captured. Davis, who is called the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” was hanged in Pulaski during the Civil War after being captured as a Coleman Scout.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, did not comment on this bill, but as chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, he sent out a statement commending the governor and those responsible for the Historical Commission’s vote to remove the bust, which sits in a prominent area of the Capitol next to an elevator lawmakers board each day they’re in session.

“While there is more to do, as a caucus we remain optimistic that this will be a great step towards healing divides and closing gaps that exist among the citizens of the great state of Tennessee,” Parkinson said in the statement.

Rep. Jesse Chism, D-Memphis, was aware of the new legislation Tuesday.

“I think that’s a move they should have kept in their pocket,” Chism said. “The bust did need to come down because it’s offensive to so many Tennesseans, and by restructuring the board which makes that decision, I don’t think that’s a good move, especially during this and time and in this posture.”


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.