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VOL. 132 | NO. 255 | Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Monuments Moment Spans Generational Lines

By Bill Dries

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Van Turner Sr. celebrated his 73rd birthday Wednesday, Dec. 20, as his son, county commissioner Van Turner Jr., was somewhere near the epicenter of the most significant chapter of the city’s long-running controversy over Confederate monuments.

The younger Turner was in the darkened Health Sciences Park cordoned off by police, who also shut off traffic in all directions on surrounding streets. He watched as workers with Allworld Project Management coordinated the removal of a monument that figured prominently in his thoughts about his father.

Shelby County commissioner Van Turner is among elected leaders who are just a generation removed from a time when Health Sciences Park was racially segregated. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“A man who was the valedictorian of Lester High School and in the third integrated class at the University of Memphis,” Turner said the next day as he spoke in front of the stunted monument whose horse and rider had been lifted from the base after 112 years there.

Turner has talked before about his father’s memories of not being able to walk through the park, much less sit down somewhere in the park bearing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name, likeness and grave.

The younger Turner grew up in a very different world. For the most recent generation of elected local officials, however, the days of segregation by law and reminders of white supremacy – like a massive monument to a slave trader and Ku Klux Klan leader on horseback along one of the major thoroughfares in the city – are not foreign.

His father’s history with Forrest Park came up in September as the county commission voted to support the city’s effort to get a state waiver to remove the monuments. It began with Turner talking about how legal arguments and conflicts are a part of his professional life and the career of any attorney.

Other commissioners weren’t necessarily opposed to the idea, but were more cautious about litigation that has already been going on for years. That’s when Turner focused on the purpose of the Forrest monument in the lives of his father’s generation and what they have told their children and grandchildren about those places that still exist.

“He, as an African-American, was not even allowed to put a foot in that park,” Turner said. “Just let that resonate. He had to walk around the park.”

These are family stories and family memories – places to avoid in everyday lives just one generation ago. And for some, places to avoid mentioning a generation later.

When Turner linked to an article about the statue removal on Facebook the next day, he received mostly praise. But other commenters called him a “domestic terrorist” and a “bad seed.” “Hope u get shot by ur own,” read another comment. “I hope you get what’s coming to you,” read another. “Spend more time on black on black killing and you will progress.”

Among those trying to get to the park Wednesday evening was Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson. Like Turner, he is the son of educators who became an attorney by trade and full-time school system leader by virtue of an unpredictable and historic change in public education locally five years ago.

“Just tried to drive by Health Science Park to see this for myself. Union (Avenue) shut down, but Memphis is making it happen,” he posted on Twitter. “Shows what we can do when we stand tall together on the side of decency and what we know is right. Great work Memphis! Let’s take poverty down next.”

The Nathan Bedford Forrest monument without the likeness of Forrest on horseback atop it is still drawing attention after its removal Wednesday, Dec. 20. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

What comes next has always been the coda in discussions about what happens when the monuments come down. And in the last year or so, that role has been filled amply by observances this coming April of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To critics of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s legal strategy, it forced Strickland to step up the pace of efforts to remove the monuments. Strickland has said bringing down the monuments is critical to show how much progress the city has made on all fronts as the world focuses its attention on Memphis in April.

At the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual luncheon earlier this month, one of the main voices in the new push for minority business growth, Darrell Cobbins, the president of Universal Commercial Real Estate, drew a distinction between the expectations Memphians have for the anniversary and what those looking in on Memphis will be seeking.

“While the world will be focused looking back and tracing our progress from 1968 to now, we must make a solemn commitment as Memphians to also be looking forward,” he said at the end of the luncheon. “Looking forward to a future that transcends where we are today, but focus all of our collective energy and work on the Memphis we want 50 years from now for our children and their children.”

Cobbins called for a goal of making an inclusive city “our most authentic reality” among all of the imagery of dreams that will come with the 50th anniversary – the imagery most associated with King because of his historic “I Have A Dream” speech made five years before his assassination.

“After all the news cameras leave and the reporters leave, ultimately it will be us Memphians who are left to ponder the question where do we go from here,” Cobbins said.

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