The Look in Brief

Forrest bust removal question to go to State Building Commission

By: - July 19, 2021 9:39 am
Slave trader, Confederate general: the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust sits atop a perch outside the Tennessee House of Representatives Chamber. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Slave trader, Confederate general: the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust sits atop a perch outside the Tennessee House of Representatives Chamber. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s days in the State Capitol could be numbered.

The State Capitol Commission is set to request Thursday that the State Building Commission concur with its decision to relocate three busts, including one of Confederate Lt. Gen. Forrest, to the State Museum, moving them out of the State Capitol after years of upheaval.

To some degree, the decision pits Gov. Bill Lee against Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who are likely to be outnumbered if they vote against the relocation. But it also could clear up a year-old legal question on the matter. 

One State Building Commission member who hasn’t participated in the process, Comptroller Jason Mumpower, indicated he is likely to vote for relocation. Three other members of the Building Commission have voted already to move the busts as members of other commissions.

“Based on a motion authored by my predecessor, Comptroller Emeritus Justin P. Wilson, the State Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission have previously agreed that the historical significance of these busts can be better reflected through display at the State Museum,” Mumpower said in a statement.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, is frustrated by the lack of action in moving a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, is frustrated by the lack of action in moving a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lee, who last year sought removal of the Forrest bust from the State Capitol, has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning, shortly before the State Building Commission is to meet. Its topic has not been revealed.

“This final step will ensure there is no room for doubt in the process. The goal has not changed, and guidance on next steps will be provided at the end of the week,” Lee spokeswoman Casey Black said.

The move marks a departure of sorts from the Capitol Commission’s decision to take the matter straight to the Tennessee Historical Commission in fall of 2020 instead of going first through the State Building Commission at the time.

At that point, McNally and Sexton insisted state law required the matter to go through the State Building Commission, on which they serve, before it could go to the Historical Commission. The Capitol Commission skipped that step, leading to questions about whether their move was legal.

McNally has opposed removal of the Forrest bust, preferring that context on the Confederate general’s life be added.

For years, McNally has opposed removal of the Forrest bust, preferring that context on the Confederate general’s life be added, and he plans to vote “consistent with that position,” according to spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

“Due to the shifting public positions of many who will be voting on Thursday. Lt. Gov. McNally hesitates to speculate on the outcome. The law and past precedent clearly outline the need for concurrence by the State Building Commission. While the vote should have occurred prior to the waiver being submitted to the Historical Commission, this is a necessary step to ensure that in future cases the law is followed to the letter and in proper order,” Kleinheider said in a statement. 

For years, McNally has opposed removal of the Forrest bust, preferring that context on the Confederate general’s life be added, and he plans to vote “consistent with that position,” according to spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

“Due to the shifting public positions of many who will be voting on Thursday. Lt. Gov. McNally hesitates to speculate on the outcome. The law and past precedent clearly outline the need for concurrence by the State Building Commission. While the vote should have occurred prior to the waiver being submitted to the Historical Commission, this is a necessary step to ensure that in future cases the law is followed to the letter and in proper order,” Kleinheider said in a statement. 

Critics of the bust’s inclusion in the Capitol say it sends a message that white supremacy continues there, celebrating Forrest’s life as a slave trader, Confederate general, leader during the Fort Pillow Massacre and then first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. 

The vote by the Capitol Commission and subsequent action by the Historical Commission combine to relocate busts of Forrest and U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves to a Hall of Heroes exhibit to be set up by the State Musuem.

Sexton has said he believes the state should make sure it handles the relocation legally. But the Republican-controlled House is largely opposed to removal.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an opinion leaving the question open by saying both sides could be correct, depending on the interpretation of their action.

Lee’s Administration has been mum on how it would handle the matter since the Historical Commission’s order took effect July 9, saying only that it plans to move forward with relocation.

Taking the matter before the State Building Commission could be considered a compromise on the process. But the Lee Administration still has enough votes to approve removal.

Even if McNally and Sexton vote against relocation, they could be outnumbered on the Building Commission by Mumpower, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Treasurer David Lillard, Finance & Administration Commissioner Butch Eley and even Gov. Lee, if necessary.

Mumpower has not voted on the matter, but his predecessor, Justin Wilson, called for the vote to move all three busts for creation of a Hall of Heroes. Hargett, Lillard and Eley all voted for the relocation as members of the Capitol Commission.

 

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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.

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