The nearly 3,000-pound bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest loaded onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the Tennessee State Museum. (Photo: John Partipilo)
In the wake of the State Building Commission vote to relocate the busts of Nathan Bedford Forrest and two U.S. admirals, House Speaker Cameron Sexton is set to push for a change in state law, likely to involve more legislators in future decisions to move statues.
Sexton issued a statement last week saying, “From the very beginning, the legislature has tried to follow the process and procedure in a respectful manner, and we did that today. Moving forward, the legislature will be working on revising current law to include a more significant voice of those elected.”
Protesters camped on the War Memorial Plaza during summer 2020 demanding, among other things, the Forrest bust be removed.
Legislators opposed to moving the monuments contend groups will call next for the removal of statues of President Andrew Jackson, who owned slaves and presided over the Trail of Tears, as well as Sam Davis, who was considered “boy hero” of the Confederacy. He was hanged after being captured by Union troops and refusing to divulge who gave him sensitive information.
Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally were the only two members of the State Building Commission to vote against concurring with a State Capitol Commission decision to relocate the busts of Confederate Lt. Gen. Forrest and U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves. All three were taken out of the Capitol’s second floor Friday morning and taken to the State Museum, where they are to go on display Tuesday.
Asked Monday, if Sexton is planning to sponsor or support legislation making it more difficult to move busts and monuments by adding the Legislature to those decisions, spokesman Doug Kufner would only say, “We are looking at all options.”
Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for McNally, said Monday the lieutenant governor would “absolutely support giving the legislature more input in decisions regarding monuments and statues in and around the Capitol.”
He said there is no immediate plan, though, to replace the Forrest bust or the other two.
Black lawmakers are suggesting early 1900s civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, who was persecuted for exposing lynchings in news articles, should fill the void in the former Forrest alcove.
For years, the Republican-controlled Legislature balked at the prospect of removing the Forrest bust, with most saying it is an attempt to erase history. Lawmakers tried to pass a bill in 2020 adding House and Senate clerks to the decision-making process but couldn’t pass it before the Legislature took a temporary adjournment when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Republicans and Democrats also butted heads this year when legislation passed prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in Tennessee public schools, a move to punish educators who teach that the nation or state have inherently racist laws and policies.
In the last days of this year’s session, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, introduced the language in an unrelated education bill but refused to use the term “critical race theory,” saying only that the amendment was designed to make teachers stick strictly to Tennessee standards.
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said he believes the Legislature needs to change state law, but to make it easier for monuments to be moved. He wasn’t sure, though, about Sexton’s intent and which elected officials he was referring to for a new direction.
“Lastly, the reason we have the stringent rules in place now was because the Republican majority wanted to make it extremely difficult for these symbols of hate to be removed. The symbols of hate were removed under their rules that they put into the law,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.
In response to Sexton’s statement, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie said he believes Sexton wants the Legislature to have a vote or at least for more legislators to vote on the movement of monuments.
“They want all the power. They want to make all the decisions regardless of whether it’s good for their constituents or not,” said Dixie, a Nashville Democrat.
Similarly to Parkinson, Dixie pointed out state law under the Heritage Protection Act already makes it “very difficult” to move historical monuments and statues. Sponsored by former Sen. Bill Ketron, the law was enacted in 2013, then amended in 2016 and 2018, generally prohibiting removal, relocation or renaming of a memorial located on public property.
To move the Forrest bust, the Tennessee Capitol Commission, acting at the request of Gov. Bill Lee, sought a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to move the Forrest, Farragut and Gleaves busts. A request by former Gov. Bill Haslam to relocate the Forrest memorial failed when the Capitol Commission voted in opposition.
The Legislature closed a loophole in the Heritage Protection Act three years ago after the city of Memphis sold the park where a Forrest equestrian statue and graves were located to a nonprofit organization, which started taking down the statue immediately. The statue was moved, and recently the remains of Forrest and his wife were exhumed and taken to another location.
Dixie said he found it “ironic” that the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to prohibit teaching any sort of race theory that might make students “feel bad” but wanted to maintain monuments to slave owners who “killed” and “raped” African Americans.
McNally said last week he would not challenge the State Building Commission’s decision. He and Sexton had claimed the State Building Commission should have taken a vote on the Capitol Commission’s decision before it went to the Historical Commission in fall 2020. The matter was stuck in limbo until the Building Commission decision last week when Gov. Lee presided over the vote.
Parkinson last week said the removal of Forrest “signifies a great first step in beginning to heal our divide,” calling it a “sensitive matter to some and a symbolic victory to others.” He noted, however, the Black Caucus understands the bigger issue is making sure all people feel welcome in Tennessee “to thrive and prosper.”
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