Parks Debate Continues as Convention Departs

By Bill Dries

With a Ku Klux Klan rally in the rearview mirror, the local debate over the renaming of three Confederate-themed city parks moved ahead this week.

A group of 60 attended a public hearing Monday, April 1, by the ad hoc City Council committee on the parks renaming at City Hall.

And the local leader of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans Chapter said the parks controversy means the national Sons of Confederate Veterans group will not hold its annual convention in Memphis.

Meanwhile, organizers of two events at the Mid-South Fairgrounds at the same time as Saturday’s Klan rally at the Shelby County Courthouse said they will explore holding the events again.

Lee Millar, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, said the national group has voted not to come to Memphis. In an email with the subject line “City Council Thanks – NOT,” Millar said the leaders of the group specifically cited the council plans to permanently rename Forrest, Confederate and Jefferson Davis parks in its decision.

And he claimed the decision means the loss of more than $1 million in economic impact.

The group held its 2002 national convention in Memphis. During the event, the group re-enacted the 1862 raid on Memphis by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest including a horseback ride into a ballroom of The Peabody hotel. Forrest’s brother, William, rode into the old Gayoso hotel on horseback during the raid.

Millar was among those who spoke at the public hearing.

Memphis branch NAACP president Keith Norman, who is on the committee, said he didn’t think the Klan rally had any impact on the committee’s work.

“I think that the weekend events were a bump in the road. They were a blip,” Norman added. “They were insignificant. Memphians did the right thing. They overwhelmingly stayed away from it.”

Most but not all speakers at the hearing urged the committee to recommend the council restore the old names.

“I don’t think it’s as heated as we make it,” Norman said. “But it is good for people to share their thoughts.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Kern, among the organizers of the “Heart of Memphis” gathering that got moved inside at the Mid-South Fairgrounds by the rain, said the coalition of groups behind the event are evaluating its return.

“The event was tremendously successful on a shoestring budget with very little time to plan, promote and put together. Just imagine what we could do with a budget and lots of time and better weather,” he said. “We had a lot of folks request that we do it again – from food truck vendors and arts vendors to participants who came to hear the music and attend the workshops.”

The Memphis United group that put together the neighboring People’s Conference examining racism and diversity meets Friday to explore what might be next.

“Let’s not just talk about fighting racism when the Klan comes to town,” said Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, which was one of the groups involved in organizing the conference. “Let’s build a sustainable movement to work on that issue into the future.”

Like Kern, Watkins said the conference came together quickly also over about a three-week period and as the Easter weekend neared, both events began to build in momentum with various groups calling to offer support without being solicited.

“There’s a lot of people who want to have this next year and make this an annual event,” Watkins added. “We’re going to be talking about moving forward what other things we can do … grassroots organizing campaigns to get the city to address and directly confront issues of racism and oppression in our city and oppressive systems.”

Watkins also said he has some questions about the overwhelming police precautions for the Klan rally.

“I’m glad that no one was harmed and we didn’t have a repeat of 1998,” he said. “But a lot of people have concerns about just how far things went with security and some questions about the First Amendment. But human lives are the most important thing since some people had their children with them.”