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Memphis continues fight to remove Confederate statues

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The City of Memphis is pushing ahead on its legal effort to convince a state agency for permission to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park.

If City Council and Mayor Jim Strickland had their way, the statue would have been removed by now, Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen said Monday.

Memphis City Council voted to remove the statue in 2015, but the effort was halted because the statue falls under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Historical Commission, which previously denied the request.

McMullen said and the city has to follow legal procedure. The next meeting of the state board is in October, and the city plans to present its appeal then.

"We are not in the business of violating the law," he said.

If the appeal isn't granted, McMullen said the city is prepared to take the fight all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The city will also petition to remove a statue of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the former Confederate Park downtown, McMullen said.

Both issues are complicated by legal jurisdictions and land ownership issues, McMullen said. He did not give a timetable as to when the city hopes to remove the statues.

"I understand the impatience of the public on this issue," McMullen said. "I too am impatient."

The issue has caused divisions among Memphians. Local activists say they plan to continue protesting the statues, like they did Saturday.

"We need to find a way to represent citizens of color who do not want to see statues that represent terror, bigotry and hate and white supremacy in our city," Rev. Earle Fisher said.

Supporters of the history behind the statues say they're keeping an eye on the situation, too.

"These statues don't stand for white supremacy or racism whatsoever," said Lee Millar with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "These are statues to American military."

Forrest was a slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery when he died in 1877. In 1905, his body along with his wife was moved to the former Forrest Park on Union Avenue under a large monument.

Davis lived in Memphis after the Civil War. His statue was erected in the 1960s.

The removal of Confederate statues on city property has provoked outcry on both sides in cities across the South. New Orleans recently removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky has proposed moving that city's Confederate monuments.

Over the weekend, a demonstration by alt-right groups protesting the decision to remove Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia led to a deadly incident that killed one counter-protester and injured many others.

Strickland condemned the incident on social media Sunday, continuing "I'm also glad to see more people joining our cause to remove the Confederate statues in our city."

On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam issued a statement that a separate bust of Gen. Forrest should no longer be displayed at the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville.

“My position on this issue has not changed — I do not believe Nathan Bedford Forrest should be one of the individuals we honor at the Capitol. The General Assembly has established a process for addressing these matters and I strongly encourage the Capitol Commission and the Historical Commission to act.”

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, sent a letter to Haslam asking for his support in removing the Memphis statue, writing, "This is not, and should not, be a partisan issue. It is an American one."