Clergy members urge Historical Commission to take action on statues

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dozens of local pastors from across the Mid-South have written a letter to the Tennessee Historical Commission expressing their support for the city's request to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

Approximately 153 clergy members signed the letter which was released to the public on Wednesday.

"By no means are we seeking to erase history," the letter read. "It is imperative that we understand history; the foundations of our society, of our country, and our faith traditions are built on that. But it is also important that we understand historical figures and events in their full context."

They noted the statue was placed on city property in 1905, decades after the end of the Civil War and in "the throes of Jim Crow laws across the South."

"Beyond the historical inaccuracy and geographic irrelevancy of his monument, it does not represent who we are as a people of faith."

The statue does not convey the city's entire history or diversity, and could better serve the community "in a more historically appropriate site," they said.

"What we wanted to say, look, the essence of each of our religions is love and this statue does not represent love. This is something we can unite on," said Dr. George Robertson, head Pastor at Second Presbyterian.

The list hosting names such Dr. Steve Gaines from Bellevue Baptist Church and current President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

All seven pastors at Pastor Dr. Sean Lucas' church, Independent Presbyterian signed on.

"I think one of the things that we hold in common, people from different faith traditions is a common desire to see our city change, to be a new Memphis. In our faith tradition we would say we would be new people because we are followers of Jesus and that's how a new city emerges," explained Lucas.

Robertson, a new pastor at Second Presbyterian. A predominately white church, that saw resistance during the Civil Rights Movement said he didn't think twice about adding his name.

" It's important to me because it's one of the reasons I came here. It's been part of one of the emphasizes of my pastoral ministry to strive for racial reconciliation and justice."

The city says since the list was released they've had upwards of 15 more clergy members wanting to add their names.

"It brings credibility, it brings a sense of compassion, understanding and it brings that diversity," said Ken Moody, Special Assistant to Mayor Jim Strickland.

Read the full letter here

The statue has become a hot button issue among citizens in the city of Memphis.

Forrest amassed a fortune as a slave trader in Memphis before enlisting in the Civil War.  At one time, he was even a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but supporters say he later renounced the group, "became a Christian and stood up for African Americans" as evidenced in his "Jubilee of Pole Bearers" speech in 1875. In the speech, he spoke of putting black citizens into jobs at law offices, stores and farms, and even gave a black woman a kiss on the cheek, which was forbidden back then.

Another argument for keeping the statue: Forrest and his wife are buried in the base of the monument.

"How would you like it for somebody wanting to dig up your relatives or your family or your child? It's sickening," said one supporter.

Forrest was originally buried in Elmwood Cemetery, but supporters moved his body to Union Avenue in the early 20th century.

Lee Millar with Sons of Confederate Veterans said he was not familiar with the letter before a reporter informed him Wednesday.

"It's misguided and extremely judgmental," Millar said. There are so many things in history we can learn from and Confederate monuments should not be singled out. They should be appreciated and learned from just like so many other things in our history."

Those who seek the removal of the statue says it serves as a constant reminder of racism and hatred.

"To have him in the center of our city, to have him in a very public park with words that say he was an honorable good gentleman speaks to some of the things we see where there's opinions of black people not being as deserving," said activist Tami Sawyer.

"If people want to study history, we've got books, we've got museums, we've got the internet," she said. "The history of the Civil Rights fight of slavery, of the confederacy, is never going to go away. No one's going to forget about the oppression that black people face, no one's going to forget about slavery."

To make things even more interesting, state law prohibits the statue from being removed without a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission. The group denied the city's first request to move it and are expected to talk about the appeal at their October meeting.

The Memphis City Council approved an ordinance that would remove Confederate statue if their request to the state is denied.

The ordinance cites Memphis' history with segregated public parks, which resulted in a lawsuit in 1960, and states that the statues were "erected during the Jim Crow era and were dedicated when the parks in which they were erected could not be used by African Americans."

It also states that the recent public protest and potential for violence has "interfered with the public's use and enjoyment of public places."

The Memphis Police Department has spent $55,031 in overtime pay last month to guard the Confederate monuments in the two city parks. That's in addition to $8,795 for officers detailed to the park on days when events did not occur.