Council Mulls Legal Options To Move Park Monuments

By Bill Dries

“Let me see if I can describe it simply. It is probably easier to have someone executed by lethal injection in Tennessee than to get a waiver from the state historical commission.”
- Allan Wade,
Memphis City Council attorney

Memphis City Council members are exploring new options for the Confederate monuments in city parks that include boarding up statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis as nuisances, to prevent them from being vandalized and maintain public order, or by citing a provision of the state’s Civil Rights Act.

The options outlined by council attorney Allan Wade Tuesday, Aug. 22, after a half hour private attorney-client session with council members pushed back any council vote on a resolution calling for the immediate removal of the statues, or boxing them up and otherwise obscuring them from public view.

“We do have the authority by statute to board it up if we believe it is in the best interest of protecting it,” Wade said.


Council members review their legal options again Tuesday, Sept. 5, in committee sessions and could vote at the full council meeting later that day.

Council chairman Berlin Boyd said he is committed to “doing everything in my power to see that statue and monument be removed.”

“We have Home Depot and he had Negro Depot,” Boyd said, referring to advertisements for Forrest’s slave market. “It’s like the South was victorious and won. They act like they were victorious.”

The legal options include playing out the process of getting a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission that would allow the city to take down the monuments.

“Let me see if I can describe it simply,” Wade said. “It is probably easier to have someone executed by lethal injection in Tennessee than to get a waiver from the state historical commission.”

Seeking the waiver has been the strategy of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Another option is seeking an expedited decision by the historical commission sooner than its October meeting and then a February vote, which must be a two-thirds vote from the commission to grant the waiver. The commission includes several members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who have been vocal opponents of any attempt to remove the statues and hold annual events at Forrest’s statue honoring him.

As the council was discussing the matter, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, in the city for a different occasion, said he isn’t likely to push for an expedited meeting of the historical commission.

“They have their schedule and I think it’s important to let them stick to what their schedule is,” he said. “That would be my intention. I don’t call that. I’m not the chair. As the governor, I can call special sessions of the Legislature, but that’s not what’s involved at this point.”

Haslam also told reporters that he has talked with Strickland about the controversy and the process.

“He wants it to come down. He thinks it should and I agree with him,” Haslam said. “But here’s the other thing; there is a process and he’s doing everything in his power to speed that process along, which is what I think is the right approach.”


Among the council members expressing an opinion Tuesday, following that process did not seem to be the prevailing sentiment.

“Let’s take that off the table,” said council member Martavius Jones. “We’d be looking at another year.”

Council member Worth Morgan, however, called for a political push to round up the necessary votes on the historical commission or in the Legislature for a repeal of a law he said is “seemingly arbitrary, purposely difficult and unnecessarily time-consuming.”

“What we choose to honor in our public places, what we choose to put on a pedestal in our public places does change,” Morgan said. “It should change. It’s past time that we relocate the statues to a more appropriate place.”

With the weekend arrests of six people during a protest at the Forrest monument in Health Sciences Park, Strickland has talked about the difference in tactics and timing with the “Take Them Down 901” movement.

In delivering a petition with 4,500 signatures favoring the immediate removal of the monuments to the city Tuesday before the council discussion and vote, Tami Sawyer, the organizer of Take Them Down, described it as “a respectful process.”

Sawyer listened to Tuesday’s council discussion and said later she was “pleased” with it.

“While we know he’s a great legal mind, I was glad to see the personal conviction behind our stance that the statues need to come down,” she said. “There’s room for all manners of engagement.”

Meanwhile, one of the six people arrested in Saturday’s protest at the Forrest statue and a march that followed the unrest in Health Sciences Park is no longer charged.

Robert Levert Brown was charged with disorderly conduct, along with Donald Warden, the only two of the six specifically charged with trying to cover the statue with a large sheet.

The misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct against Brown was dropped without cost at a Monday arraignment.

Warden remains charged with disorderly conduct and desecration of a venerated object – both misdemeanors.

Patrick Ghant, Scott Prather and Jarrell Williams remain charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and Mia Frances Jordan is charged with obstructing a road.