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VOL. 130 | NO. 165 | Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Confederate Parks Renaming Court Ruling Charts Path of Controversy

By Bill Dries

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The Tennessee Court of Appeals concluded last week that the city of Memphis was involved in the placement of a concrete marker in what used to be Forrest Park that set off an ongoing chain of events.

A Tennessee Appeals Court ruling deals with one part of what has become a complicated controversy over the renaming of Forrest Park and city plans to move the statue.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

A Sons of Confederate Veterans group had the 10-foot, 3,000-pound concrete marker made and installed in 2011 at Health Sciences Park. It read “Forrest Park” and was on the park’s south side in front of the approach to Nathan Bedford Forrest’s equestrian monument.

When Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration removed the marker shortly after installation, leaders of the group claimed they had city permission to construct and place it.

Wharton denied that was the case.

But the Aug. 21 appeals court opinion, written by Judge Brandon O. Gibson, concludes the city’s parks division director at the time “actively participated in the design of the name marker, approved its location and even suggested that the name marker be inscribed to reflect that its installation was the result of a partnership between the Division of Park Services and SCV Camp #215.”

Chancellor Kenny Armstrong ruled none of the 15 had standing and dismissed the lawsuit in 2013. The appeals court on Friday, Aug. 21, agreed with Armstrong for 14 of the 15 plaintiffs but ruled the Sons of Federal Veterans Forrest camp had a case, partially because of the marker.

That group also maintained the park over the years, which added to its lawsuit justification.

The case is remanded back to Chancery Court where it will be handled by a new judge.

Armstrong has been appointed to Tennessee’s appeals court since the original ruling; he was not among the judges who heard and decided the appeal.

Whichever chancellor gets the case on the remand could decide the renaming of the three parks was legal; that they all were illegal; or that some of the new park names stand while others don’t.

The city council acted to rename the parks as the Tennessee legislature considered a bill called the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013. The bill, which became law after the council’s move, limits the authority of local governments to rename parks for or dedicated in honor of any historical military figure or event.

In June, the massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., by a suspect who made numerous online references to the Confederacy prompted calls across the South for the removal of public displays of Confederate flag and symbols.

Wharton and council chairman Myron Lowery called for the removal of the Forrest monument from what is now dubbed Health Sciences Park as well as the disinterment of the remains of Forrest and his wife Mary Ann in the base of the monument.

The council unanimously passed a resolution affirming the move in July; it conducted its last of three votes on the matter Tuesday, Aug. 18.

The ordinance includes an amendment that affirms the name change for all three Confederate-themed parks, which the council approved by resolution in 2013.

One of the plaintiffs’ points from the 2013 lawsuit was that the council should have approved the name changes by ordinance, not resolution.

The passage of the resolution and ordinance on moving the monument and the remains of Forrest and his wife are likely to prompt new challenges, and the city administration doesn’t currently have a specific plan for either.

Wharton has said from the outset that in order to disinter the remains, the city must file suit in Chancery Court and that Forrest’s descendants will be heard as part of such a process.

In that case, and any other legal proceedings, the courts are likely to do what the appeals court did last week – note the larger cultural issues but rule on the specific legal dispute.

“The underlying issue in this case involves complex cultural and social concerns that generate strong passions on both sides,” Gibson wrote for the three-judge panel. “While we appreciate the depth of those feelings, it is not within the purview of this court to resolve the larger cultural issue of whether or how those who fought for the Confederacy should be honored or remembered.”

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