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VOL. 10 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 23, 2017

Forrest Down

Memphis makes history in removing the two most visible Confederate monuments in a deal that involved selling the parks where they once stood

By Bill Dries

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It’s hard to know where the equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest is when there aren’t lights on it.

That was the case Wednesday, Dec. 20, as the spotlights normally illuminating the likeness of the Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard were doused.

Health Sciences Park is adorned with lots of big, old trees that block out street lights on its borders, so the park absorbs outside light before it can reach Forrest’s likeness. Light sources from within the park are thus accentuated, like the blue flashes of police car lights that have guarded the statue through several years of protests, including a marathon police presence since the summer.

Lights were also absent Wednesday night around the less elaborate statue of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park.

Meanwhile, police cars massed at the Tennessee Welcome Center just below Memphis Park awaited word. Word on whether and when a vote by the Memphis City Council would initiate the removal of these two statues, and send police into protection mode around the two city parks.

In an unusual Wednesday session held over from a recessed session the day before, the council first debated proposed Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division rate hikes before voting down a water-rate hike and delaying votes on gas and electric rate hikes until January.

After a few more agenda items, council chairman Berlin Boyd turned his attention to third and final reading of an ordinance laying out different options the city could take if the state – either in the courts or through the Tennessee Historical Commission – continued to refuse to allow the city to remove the Forrest statue.

The ordinance had changed several times as dates for action by the state were delayed. That was the case with a hearing before an administrative judge on the city’s claim that the Forrest statue didn’t qualify as a war memorial under state law. And if that claim was correct, the city didn’t need the historical commission’s approval.

All were elements of what attorney Allan Wade, the city council’s attorney and one of the attorneys for Mayor Jim Strickland's administration in the monuments controversy, has described as “Confederate hell.”

Wade also has complained that it is easier for the state to execute someone by lethal injection than it is to move a statue honoring a Confederate soldier.

Meanwhile, the administration had told state officials that mediation recommended by the state among the city, Sons of Confederate Veterans and Forrest’s descendants was also being delayed. The city wasn’t getting any notice on when the sessions might happen. So city leaders set a Dec. 19 deadline, at which time the council would act if there was no settlement.

The Forrest statue was erected in 1905 with Forrest and his wife disinterred from their original burial places in Elmwood Cemetery to be interred at the foot of the monument. (Memphis News File)

With no advance notice Wednesday, council member Edmund Ford Jr. introduced a substitute ordinance and the council approved it without debate.

The vote reclassified Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park as “open spaces” and turned them over – for $1,000 each – to a nonprofit organization called Memphis Greenspace Inc. The nonprofit was chartered in October with county commissioner and attorney Van Turner as its president.

A month before Memphis Greenspace was chartered by the state, the city council changed an ordinance to allow it to sell park land to a private company at less than fair market value.

With the council vote Wednesday, Memphis Greenspace had already arranged for the removal of the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park and Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park. Strickland later said all of it was paid for privately with no expense to the city.

Within minutes of the council vote, before citizens in the chamber could get a copy of the substitute ordinance, Memphis Police headed for both parks from the staging area on the riverfront, sealing off all sides of both parks with convoys of police cars. That was followed by police completely sealing off all streets around the parks and putting in place steel barriers. City dump trucks were used to block some roads into the immediate area around the parks.

HISTORIC MOMENT IN MEMPHIS

“History is being made in Memphis tonight,” Strickland would say a half hour after the Forrest statue came down and an hour before the Davis statue was removed.

Among those who camped out across Union Avenue directly across the street from the Forrest statue to watch its fall was Tami Sawyer.

“Change is possible. We needed this.”

 –Tami Sawyer

founder of Take Them Down 901

 

The founder of the Take Them Down 901 effort had been calling on the city to move more quickly to remove the monuments. The group has also been critical of Strickland for not acting unilaterally before the Tuesday council vote.

“I’ve got to be honest. I cried when we got up here,” she said. “We got to the statue and then they made us get out of the park.”

That’s happened several times to Sawyer in the last year, including at an August demonstration around the statue the same day that Crosstown Concourse opened. Police arrested six other demonstrators after some in the crowd tried to climb atop the Forrest statue and cover it with a sheet.

“There was so much negativity around this. People told us this was the wrong fight and that we were doing it for the wrong reason,” Sawyer said as work crews positioned and repositioned themselves around the darkened statue, waiting to take it down at the pre-arranged time of 9:01 p.m.

“I believe the collective force of how many people believed that it needed to happen now, that the city finally found a way to remove them,” Sawyer said. “I’m glad we finally found a way to make it happen. This shows this work is not without reward.”

Boyd and council members Kemp Conrad and Frank Colvett showed up at the statue together. And when Boyd came across Union to talk to reporters, some of those who had been part of the Take Them Down 901 protests taunted him.

“We’ve been working tirelessly,” Boyd began.

“Take Them Down 901 has,” replied activist Keedran Franklin.

Others in the crowd made a coughing noise that included the word “bullshit” and then began chanting Sawyer’s name.

Later, Boyd said the coordination between the council and administration made the moment possible.

“It takes time,” Boyd said. “We wanted to do things legal. We wanted to do things in order. And we wanted to make a defensible case.”

Also in the crowd was Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, who called for the removal of the Forrest statue decades earlier on several occasions.

“I’m ecstatic, and those who have been in the struggle for the removal of these despicable monuments join me in my ecstasy,” he said. “It’s a turning point in terms of our history. Words can’t express how jubilant I am.”

Bailey, an attorney, said the city deserves credit for pursuing a complex legal course with lots of different options along the way.

That included closing the parks entirely or building a monument to lynching victims around the Forrest statue.

“I feel that it is quite an honor on the part of our city leaders for them to have steadfastly stayed the course,” he said. “They never gave up. They encountered numerous obstacles but they persevered. And now we are seeing the fruits of their labor and their perseverance.”

If there were opponents in the crowd of the Forrest monument coming down at Health Sciences Park, they were not vocal.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, in a written statement, described Memphis Greenspace as a “sham nonprofit.”

In a separate response, SCV Commander in Chief Thomas V. Strain Jr. said the city action is “a direct violation of state law and we must allow the state to pursue this case in a lawful manner.”

“We have been fighting this case for over five years and damn sure don’t plan on backing down now,” he added.

In that time, there has been what Strickland termed a “sea change” – referring to local reaction to a violent white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville this past August.

“We saw an avalanche of support come together behind our effort,” Strickland said. “It’s important that we not forget the sea change that made today a reality.”

But during his tenure as a city council member before taking office as mayor in 2016, Strickland was part of a council that voted unanimously to call for the removal of Confederate monuments.

The most immediate effect was the administration of then-Mayor A C Wharton changing the names of Confederate, Forrest and Jefferson Davis parks, with council approval, to Memphis, Health Sciences and Mississippi River parks, respectively.

Most but not all of the markers in the parks referring to the Confederate-themed names were painted over. A marker in Memphis Park about the gunboat battle of Memphis remains, a marker SCV leaders had changed to remove any reference to a surrender of the city to Union forces after the battle on the river. Likewise, all of the seven flags that once flew on the south end of Mud Island to signify the nations Memphis has been a part of are no longer flying, except for the American flag. Plaques for five of the six former flags – all except the Confederate flag – remain at the bases of their respective flagpoles.

State Sen. Lee Harris, who was on the council prior to that, talked about the difference around City Hall and the attitude of the SCV leaders who met with the council to talk about an earlier proposal by then-council member Myron Lowery. Lowery’s idea was for the Forrest statue to coexist in a renamed Ida B. Wells Park with a monument to the turn of the 20th century Memphis civil rights and anti-lynching leader.

“They strutted into the meeting,” Harris said of the SCV at an October Law Week forum that also featured Sawyer, Wade and city chief legal officer Bruce McMullen. “They were in control. They were extremists and a lot of us were livid.”

Lowery’s compromise was rejected immediately by the SCV group.

Harris described Wade, who has played a key role in the city’s legal battle during Strickland’s administration, as “ready to lock and load” during the council’s encounter with the SCV.

Wade said the council was “galvanized” and put aside differences over the monuments when the Tennessee Legislature followed up by passing two state laws in 2013 and 2016 designed to prevent the removal of Confederate monuments.

By then the city was also seeing an uptick in protests around various causes led by groups of younger Memphians, including Sawyer.

And with the two most visible Confederate monuments down, there are still deep differences between those who agree that the monuments had to come down but disagreed on just about every detail of how they should come down.

“That’s how we got here,” Strickland said of the process he followed through what amounted to a flow chart of options – all of them rooted in the law. “But this day should be more about where we go from here. Though some of our city’s past is painful, we are all in charge of our city’s future.”

“We love Memphis,“ Sawyer said. “We want all people in Memphis to have the same opportunity, to be treated the same. Change is possible. We needed this.”

Sawyer acknowledged there probably had to be a rapid follow-up after the council voted to sell the parks.

“It needed to happen immediately, I think, for a lot of legal reasons,” she said before looking across Union into a set of four temporary spotlights that allowed just the faintest outline of Forrest atop his horse facing south as a fog began to roll in. “I can’t wait to see him fall off his mantle.”

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