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VOL. 130 | NO. 128 | Thursday, July 2, 2015

New Forrest Front

Confederate relic debate reverberates in Memphis with Forrest statue

By Bill Dries

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The political battle over an equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the park that houses it has opened a new front.

Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s call to move the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest is a new chapter in the long civic controversy over the statue and park honoring the Confederate general.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

For the first time, a Memphis mayor is proposing to move the Forrest statue and disinter the bodies of the Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and his wife. They are both buried at the base of the statue in the Downtown Memphis park.

“It’s not as if the Health Sciences Park was an actual battlefield,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., using the two-year old name the city gave what had previously been Forrest Park for more than a century.

Wharton said that whatever course of action the city takes will be “very orderly and respectful.”

“If we have an opportunity, which I think we do, to remove this monument to a horrible time in the history or our state and nation, let’s just do it,” he said.

Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery said Wednesday, July 1, council attorney Alan Wade is drafting an ordinance to remove the statue and gravesite. The council is scheduled to discuss the issue in Tuesday, July 7, committee sessions.

The move to relocate the statue comes after the June massacre of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. The suspect adopted the Confederate flag as part of a racist philosophy motivating the attack.

The massacre has prompted calls for the removal of Confederate symbols and monuments from political leaders, including Wharton, who before had stopped short of that.

“We started down this path some time ago,” Wharton said referring to the Tennessee Legislature’s move in 2013 to block the city of Memphis from changing the names of Forrest, Confederate and Jefferson Davis Parks.

The legislation was a reaction to the city’s removal of an additional marker Sons of Confederate Veterans placed in the park at its own expense. The group claimed it had city permission for the additional marker; Wharton denied anybody in his administration granted that permission.

The council changed the park names before the legislature voted for and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.”

Just days after the Charleston massacre, Haslam said he wanted to see a bust of Forrest in the state capital building removed.

“It would be indeed odd if Memphis were to be out of sync with what is happening in Nashville, of all places,” Wharton added. “It appears that the policy of the state will be that these relics, these vestiges of a very despicable period in the history of this great nation – it’s time for those to be removed.”

The controversy over Forrest’s statue, erected during a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy sentiment nationally, has a long and colorful history of its own.

The late Shelby County Commissioner and civil rights leader Vasco Smith recalled vividly a visit he got in the late 1970s from a group of recently returned Vietnam War veterans.

“Just say the word, Doc,” he recalled them saying about their plan to blow up the now divisive statue.

Smith told the group to drop the idea.

A Chasm of Opinion

Wharton pointed to the Facebook manifesto found on the page of Dylann Roof, the suspect in the massacre.

“It’s clear by his own words that what happened in Charleston is related to the presence of the flag,” Wharton said.

Lee Millar of the local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans argued against such a connection despite pictures of Roof with Confederate flags as well as numerous references to the Confederate cause.

“It had nothing in there about the Confederate flag or the Confederate States of America,” Millar said. “He was not a member of any heritage group – just a lunatic basically.”

Citizens connected to a local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter took the city to court over the park renamings and lost in Chancery Court. The Tennessee Appeals Court has heard the appeal and all sides are awaiting the appellate court’s ruling.

The three parks were renamed on the recommendation of a committee that included historians who were divided by generations and in some cases by whether history was a full-time profession or part-time hobby. It was the first public clash on the long-simmering issue among historians.

If Wharton pursues the move of the statue and the return of Forrest’s remains to Elmwood Cemetery, the city would return to Chancery Court, this time as the plaintiff, in a lawsuit that is required to move a deceased person’s remains.

The 2013 state law would require a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to move the statue. Millar, among the plaintiffs in the parks lawsuit, said another lawsuit over the Memphis statue by his group is a possibility.

“We’re here to preserve America’s history including the history of Memphis,” he said after he was denied entrance to Wharton’s press conference in June. “So we would certainly oppose any action to move any statue. If it requires legal action then that is always an option.”

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