VOL. 133 | NO. 25 | Friday, February 2, 2018
McDaniel to Fashion Loophole Bill for State Monuments
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – The House sponsor of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act is preparing legislation to close a “loophole” Memphis used to spur removal of Confederate monuments from parks property it sold to a nonprofit group.
State Rep. Steve McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican, said the law he passed in 2016 is designed to gather public input before changes are made with historical military monuments across the state. The law was amended to require a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission before items could be moved or altered.
“The Memphis situation, they did something very unique in they found a hole in the legislation that allowed them to sell it to a private, nonprofit organization,” McDaniel said. “But I’m going to fix that loophole this year with legislation that will … still have them go through this process by petitioning the historical commission even if they’re going to sell to a nonprofit.”
In addition, McDaniel said the legislation could contain “some sort of retribution” for local governments that break or skirt the law. However, he said it would not be retroactive against the action taken by Memphis.
Memphis officials recently removed the controversial Nathan Bedford Forrest statue by first selling it to a nonprofit. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
After the Tennessee Historical Commission turned down city of Memphis requests for waivers to remove statues of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes, the City Council sold two city parks where the monuments were located for $2,000 to Memphis Greenspace Inc., a nonprofit organization that removed the statues that night. The council did not deliberate on the matter before voting.
The situation prompted House Republican leaders to call for a State Comptroller investigation of the Memphis City Council to see whether it violated open meetings laws or had any conflicts of interest.
Despite that request, members of the Black Caucus who represent Shelby County are siding with the city.
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson said he could not comment directly on McDaniel’s legislative plan without seeing it. But he supports the Memphis action.
“The people of those communities know what’s best for their communities,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “I know there’s emotion on both sides of this issue, and regardless of what positions you take on this I think people have the right to live in a community and not be offended on a daily basis by some of the things they see.”
The Forrest statue of the Confederate general on horseback garnered more attention than the Davis monument, creating division between Memphians and with the Forrest family and Sons of Confederate Veterans, which filed a complaint with the Tennessee Historical Commission and in Davidson County Chancery Court.
A Davidson County chancellor ruled this week the nonprofit cannot sell, give away or move the statues before a hearing by the Tennessee Historical Commission within 60 days to determine if the city violated state rules. Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle also ruled that parties in the Memphis controversy enter into mediation to address where the statues should go.
Calling the matter a “deep-rooted issue,” Parkinson said he understands the “historic component” of the statues and noted he believes all parties can reach an agreement and find “a place where the history of some of these monuments can be preserved.”
State Sen. Lee Harris, a Memphis Democrat running for Shelby County mayor, said he believes McDaniel’s legislative idea has “too many implications.”
“There’s too much state property that’s administered by nonprofits and other organizations,” he said.
The bill will be difficult to pass, he said, because its potential impact will be more “wide ranging” than Forrest’s statue and the Memphis City Council’s action.
Harris pointed toward Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to privatize the state’s entire real estate portfolio and other situations in which stadiums and other properties are owned by local governments and administered by businesses or other organizations.
“The only thing left to say about Confederate monuments is where do they go from here? That’s it,” Harris said. “I think that’s where energy is better spent.”
No resolution yet
House Majority Leader Glen Casada isn’t considering setting up any committee to deal with the Memphis situation, at least not yet. The comptroller’s report and whether it shows mismanagement or malfeasance will determine what steps are taken, he said.
Asked about the legal action by the family and Sons of Confederate Veterans, Casada, a Franklin Republican, said it has the “appearance” of a grave-site desecration, but he noted the main sticking point with him is not the statue.
“My primary concern is here’s a city gave away a multi-million-dollar piece of property for $1,000 to someone who has very close ties to the mayor and the board. That bothers me greatly. That’s where I’m focused,” Casada said. “No. 2, it has the appearance that open meetings were violated.”
State Rep. Joe Towns doesn’t think the nonprofit agency desecrated the Forrest grave, but said he believes whoever moved the remains of Forrest from Elmwood Cemetery to their location at Health Sciences Park “probably made a mistake.”
“As I understand it, he never wanted to be moved,” Towns said.
The argument isn’t about the grave as much as it is about the Forrest monument, he said, pointing out most people wouldn’t have known it was a graveyard without the prominent display of Forrest on horseback.
“The city doesn’t own the property anymore. It’s a done deal,” Towns said. “It’s not owned by the city. They constricted our hands by the law, and we untied our hands by the law.”
Towns, who has no problem with placing the statues on private property elsewhere, contended the state law sought to pre-empt action in Memphis, and the City Council responded by doing what the law allowed.
“You can’t squeal like a little girl after a fair fight. It’s a fair fight. You have to take your licks like a man, and the city beat ’em with the law,” he said.
McDaniel said his legislation wasn’t designed to head off efforts to remove Confederate statues, but was set up to provide a process for public involvement.
However, state Rep. Karen Camper said she felt Memphis leadership had done all it could to “respect what the voters wanted. And they really had some problems with how the state kind of intervened to try to pre-empt some of the stuff we were doing in Memphis.”
Camper, a Memphis Democrat, noted the sale of property by the city of Memphis is fairly common. She also believes someone made a “conscious decision” to move Forrest’s grave in the early 1900s from Elmwood Cemetery, where his will designates burial, to the former city park.
“And because of that, it has continuously caused problems in the city of Memphis, and so I don’t think it’s violating any act. I guess the judiciary will have to decide that. … But I just think the people of Memphis had every right,” Camper said.
“I do feel like it’s very divisive, but Memphis is divisive. Dr. King died there, and that’s still something from a racial perspective that we have not really come to terms with in Memphis.”
State Rep. Ron Lollar, a Bartlett Republican, plays it close to the vest when asked about the matter.
“My take is let’s see where we go with all the investigations because they are being investigated. That’s the main thing people need to understand. It’s not being dropped,” Lollar said.
Lollar believes Forrest’s descendants have “every right” to file a complaint, but he isn’t certain any grave desecration took place.
“I have concerns that the community is divided and we need to come to a conclusion,” Lollar said.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.