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VOL. 132 | NO. 164 | Friday, August 18, 2017

Monument Effort Reflects Differing Strategies

By Bill Dries

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The call to remove Confederate monuments in Memphis city parks is increasingly meeting with local officials pointing toward Nashville and state officials. And local activists are pointing to a clock.

Memphis City Councilman Bill Morrison is calling on Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to call a special session of the Legislature by year’s end to repeal the 2016 state law requiring a two-thirds vote of the 29-member Tennessee Historical Commission to take down any monuments to historical figures in the state.

“Here in Tennessee, local communities and leaders no longer have the power to remove such monuments from our own local parks or public spaces,” Morrison said in a written statement Wednesday, Aug. 16. “The law is wrong and must be repealed. It doesn’t protect our heritage. It only serves to protect memories of white supremacy and shrines for modern-day followers.”

The city is pursuing an appeal to the historical commission to allow for the removal of monuments in city parks to Confederacy president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Organizers of the Take Them Down 901 effort, Earle Fisher, left, Tami Sawyer, center, and Andre Johnson, right, argue the city should act unilaterally to remove Confederate monuments and not wait on state action. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

If denied at the historical commission level, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has said the city is prepared to file suit in Chancery Court for permission to remove the statues.

“If we can all get together and talk in unison to the state historical commission, that’s probably quicker. If they vote, we can take them down immediately,” Strickland said. “We think we have a really good (court) case over local control of our parks.”

But Tami Sawyer, the organizer of the “Take Them Down 901” effort, delivered a set of demands to City Hall Wednesday from the group, which has held several protests in the last week calling for the immediate removal of both statues and other similar monuments by the city.

“We do not have three months. We do not have three years to wait in court for these structures to continue to stand in our city,” she said, citing the city’s observance in April of the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I do not believe the city can fully recognize what we have and have not achieved since Martin Luther King’s assassination … if we allow those structures to stand.”

Sawyer says if the matter will wind up in court anyway, the city should act unilaterally, especially with Haslam saying he doesn’t think Forrest is worthy of a bust in the state Capitol in Nashville.

“If we plan to have litigation with the state, remove them now,” she said, citing Haslam’s public position. “If that is the case, we should probably, more than likely, strongly be protected.”

But Strickland challenged Sawyer and other protesters on crossing that line in a state that has a law complicating the removal or alteration of such monuments.

“If you think about it, the few folks that are asking us to do it, there’s a reason they are not doing it themselves,” he said. “Because it’s against state law and they would be arrested. I’m not above the law. I don’t have special privileges that the average person doesn’t have.”

Sawyer said the local effort has contacted state legislators from Memphis supportive of a repeal of the state law, which is another part of the Take Them Down 901 campaign.

“We believe we will see something happen in the Legislature,” she said. “We just know before the Legislature reconvenes – that’s a long time.”

Strickland, an attorney, says there are complications for public officials who break state laws.

“When an elected official purposefully and intentionally violates the law, there’s a definite possibility that they could be ousted,” he said. “And more than that, I’m not going to put city employees in a position by ordering them to remove that statue in violation of state law or ask our police officers to violate their oath.’

The Tennessee Legislature passed a law in 1915 that provided any person holding public office “who shall neglect to perform any duty enjoined upon such officer by any of the laws of the state of Tennessee … shall forfeit his office and shall be ousted from such office.”

The measure was pushed by political forces favoring Prohibition in response to Memphis Mayor E.H. Crump’s public refusal to enforce the state’s 1909 Prohibition law. The ouster law was challenged and held constitutional. Tennessee’s attorney general filed suit in Shelby County Chancery Court against Crump and four other city officials that same year, seeking their ouster.

Crump waived trial and in the process conceded the point, hoping to move directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court. But with the waiver, the Chancery Court ruling was that Crump was no longer mayor.

By then, Crump had been re-elected to a new term of office that began Jan. 1, 1916. The state Supreme Court ruled in February 1916 that Crump had been properly ousted and that if he took office for a new term, his admission in the original ouster suit could be used in a second ouster suit.

The ruling came before Crump was required to file his bond to serve as mayor or forfeit the mayor’s office.

At the Feb. 22 deadline, according to Crump’s biographer, William D. Miller, in the 1964 book “Mr. Crump of Memphis,” Crump took the oath of office at the deadline, was handed a check for $678.31 in retroactive pay to Jan. 1 and immediately resigned, making vice mayor Aleck Utley the new mayor. Utley took the oath of office and also immediately resigned. The city commission, which was summoned to the event, met privately and appointed Thomas Ashcroft as the new mayor – Ashcroft being Crump’s choice to succeed him.

“Crump believed that the prohibition law could not be satisfactorily enforced; he was aware that a majority of the local business community opposed such a law,” Miller wrote. “And he was convinced that prohibition would create more evils than it would correct.”

And according to Miller, Crump told a group of church leaders in favor of Prohibition, “I do not believe in compulsory prohibition for large cities.”

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