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VOL. 132 | NO. 182 | Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Monuments Controversy May Mean Long Haul of Lawsuits, Negotiations

By Bill Dries

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When the Tennessee Historical Commission votes Oct. 13 on a waiver that would permit the city of Memphis to remove Confederate monuments from two city parks, it won’t be anywhere near the last word on the matter.

It will, in many ways, be the beginning of a detailed discussion about how such a process works. That will include a legal challenge of the existing state law, probably a challenge of a city ordinance the Memphis City Council is expected to pass next month calling for the removal of the statues if no waiver is granted, and ultimately, a compromise.

Shelby County commissioners passed a resolution Monday, Sept. 11, backing the city’s effort to get a state waiver to remove the monuments of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest. The resolution by county commissioner Walter Bailey also backs the council’s move to take down the monuments after the Oct. 13 decision in Nashville if no waiver is granted.

Bailey, who has a longer history with the recurring controversy than any other local elected official, believes the statues will be moved based on that long history. That includes the city renaming the Confederate-themed parks where the monuments stand several years ago.

This week’s vote by Shelby County commissioners on the monuments controversy points to a future of lawsuits, negotiation, mediation and ultimately compromise beyond next month’s Tennessee Historical Commission meeting. (Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

And the debate on Monday among commissioners wasn’t on whether the monuments should come out of the parks, it was on the best way to do that.

Commissioner David Reaves said the decision to move the remains of Forrest from Elmwood Cemetery to what is now called Health Sciences Park in the early 20th century was a “political move” in its day. Initially, he thought the strong wording of Bailey’s resolution could be seen as political and could harden opposition.

“I want to do the right thing by people. And a lot of people have a lot of opinions about this. … I want to pass a resolution that creates an orderly dignified process for doing it,” Reaves said. “I’m for doing this and I think it’s the right way to do it. But the way we are doing it – this way – is we are going to entrench the historical commission and we are going to make sure we don’t achieve what we are trying for.”

But commissioner Van Turner said the near unanimous support from elected officials locally isn’t an end game. It is preparation for the discussions in court and behind the scenes if the historical commission rejects a waiver.

“This is not how it’s going to end. Commissioner Bailey and I do this every day,” he said, referring to him and Bailey being attorneys. “We fight every day. … Then you negotiate and then you come to what I would call a reasonable resolution.”

Toward that end, city council attorney Allan Wade told council members last month that whatever they do, they should make sure to give the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office plenty of notice so the state has a chance to go to court if it wishes.

Turner said the commission taking a stand on the monuments is about justice, recalling his father telling him he was not allowed to walk through what was then Forrest Park in the era of racial segregation by law, and the idea that Forrest’s resting place was “sacred ground.”

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

Commissioner Mark Billingsley argued for a delay to give the Shelby County Historical Commission a chance to weigh in on the monuments controversy. And when that move failed, Billingsley said Bailey’s resolution amounted to “pandering” at the expense of making opposition more intense.

Turner replied, “If we don’t do this, if we delay this, if we wait on the county historical commission, if we wait for everything to be right. If we wait for everybody to just come around the park and sing Kumbaya and we are all just moving together and everybody’s all happy … you know what? Our children will grow up with the way things are now. We’ve got to start now.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell reiterated his call to see the monuments removed. He also said local governments should have control over such decisions and not state government.

“I support the city’s position,” Luttrell said. “This is an issue you should address. This will show strength.”

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