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VOL. 132 | NO. 204 | Friday, October 13, 2017

Monumental Decision

Strickland: Historical commission must decide by mid-November

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland may not even get a discussion with the Tennessee Historical Commission Friday, Oct. 13, about moving the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of a city park.

But Strickland is going to the historical commission’s meeting in Athens, Tennessee, prepared to make his case with several legal next steps in pursuit of bringing down the statue of the Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard before the end of the year.

“We’ve told them that their next scheduled meeting in February is too late,” Strickland said Wednesday. “We need action this calendar year.”

University of Tennessee Health Science Center medical students are among the local groups that have called for the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Health Sciences Park. (Daily News File/Bill Dries)

If that doesn’t happen Friday, the administration has mapped out numerous other routes.

“We have other plans in case that we get a rejection on Friday,” Strickland said. “It could be something in between. The best-case scenario is a positive vote that we could remove the statue. The worst-case scenario is rejection. They could do something in the middle.”

The middle includes a decision no later than mid-November on a waiver from the state law that forbids the city from removing the statue.

Strickland says Memphis City Council attorney Allan Wade, who is working with the administration on the historical commission process, has filed paperwork with the commission that states the commission has to make some kind of decision by then under the rules and procedures for a waiver.

“They could say we won’t hear it this Friday but we will hear it in mid-November,” Strickland said. “We’ve got plan for whatever outcome we receive on Friday.”

None of those plans involves trying to cover up the statue.

“The law is pretty clear that that’s not allowed,” he said.

As Strickland reviewed the city’s formal path Wednesday, the leader of the grass roots Take Them Down 901 effort called on Strickland to do just that.

“We do not request that the city continue to play political games and take its time,” Tami Sawyer said as she stood in front of the Forrest statue in Health Sciences Park. “Waiting for legal methods, waiting for an appellate court, waiting for the Supreme Court could take three to four years.”

Joining Sawyer were several religious leaders who were among 153 to sign a September letter calling on the historical commission to grant the city’s request.

“We cannot be placed against one another,” said New Direction Christian church pastor Stacy Spencer, who joined Sawyer by the statue Wednesday.

Law professor and state Sen. Lee Harris was among the legal professionals and activists who debated the best path to removing Confederate monuments at a recent University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law forum. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“It no longer represents where we want to go as a city,” he said of the statue. “We are a city that is rich in diversity, rich in soul, rich in faith, and this is antithetical to being Christian, antithetical to being humane, to have a statue that represents the oppression of a people, slavery, of racism, terrorism. We are more than past due time and being patient for the removal of the statue.”

Strickland acknowledged differences of opinion, including how to go about removing the statues.

“There are some citizens of Memphis who don’t want any action in regard to the statues, some who want them taken down immediately in violation of the law,” he said. “We’ve got a plan. I’m working that plan. I think we’ve hit the sweet spot in the middle where most of the community is supportive of our plan.”

Spencer says he, Sawyer and others also will be in Athens for the meeting.

Strickland said a major part of his presentation will be a reference to what he sees as a united front by the city, starting with the religious leaders who signed the September appeal.

“Think about it,” he said. “The Republican county mayor, a unanimous city council, a unanimous county commission, which is Democrats and Republicans, very conservative pastors and very progressive pastors, all coming together … behind the effort to try to remove a statue.”

Sawyer has been critical of Strickland’s effort for being too timid, which she says is part and parcel of why the economic gap between black and white Memphians persists.

And she contends the ongoing disparity in economic condition makes the Forrest statue and one of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park potent symbols of a deliberate effort to relegate African-Americans to a second-class status post-slavery.

“These statues represent that continued oppression and suppression of black people and black voices in our city,” she said. “While there are laws in place that protect the statues, these laws were written by the leader of the Memphis chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans.”’

Sawyer is referring to SCV leader Lee Millar.

Millar has praised Forrest and said the statues should remain where they are as symbols of civic pride.

Several other SCV members are on the state historical commission and will be at Friday’s meeting.

First Baptist Church – Broad pastor Keith Norman, who also serves on the commission, is expected to call for them to recuse themselves from any decision on the city’s request.

Editor’s note: Check memphisdailynews.com or follow @tdnpols for updates on Friday’s Tennessee Historical Commission decision.

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