Bridging the Divide: Both sides forge respect during battle over Confederate statues in Memphis


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Statues of Confederate leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis have been gone from Memphis for two and a half years, but their future is uncertain. 

Both sides say respect and cooperation eventually bridged gaps that once seemed impossible.

It took years of legislative and legal work but eventually, in September 2017, Memphis city government found a way to get the racially charged statues taken down.

They were moved in December of that year, when the city council sold Health Sciences Park to a non-profit group called Memphis Greenspace.

“To have those monuments placed on Front Street and Union Street where they were placed, I think sent the wrong message for this community,” said Van Turner, president of Greenspace. “That’s why I was all in when they said, are you interested in doing this?”

But now there were two massive metal pieces of history sitting in storage and no clear plan about what to do with them.

“I mean, it was a real headache,” Turner said. “There were times where I just wanted to say, ‘Hey man, the Mississippi River is right there down the way. We can get rid of all of our problems.’”

For the next two years, Greenspace, with entirely African American leadership, battled back and forth with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of self-proclaimed history buffs and relatives of former Confederate soldiers.

“You can always add more statues, add to history, add to the education. But you should never take statues down,” said Lee Millar with SCV. “That represents part of our past, part of our history that people should learn from.”

Although dozens of officials and lawyers were involved, Turner and Millar slowly, surprisingly, began to understand and even appreciate each other.

“We had to say, ‘How do we come to some type of agreement, and end this?’” Turner said. “(Millar) was reasonable at times when he could’ve been unreasonable.”

The process wasn’t easy, but after two years the two sides landed on a settlement.

The statues will eventually be displayed in what they call an appropriate historical setting. The exact location for where the statues will be re-located is still being determined.

“There’s a good place for these statues to be, but it’ll be outside of Shelby County,” Millar said.

Turner said both sides knew it was the healthiest way to get beyond what they were dealing with at the time.

While the two sides might never see exactly eye to eye, there was great respect found in an opposition that was open to discussion and cooperation.

“I have a great respect for Van Turner,” Millar said. “It’s been fortunate that both sides have been able to work together on this.”

Turner said, “If there’s an opening to where we can come together and be brothers and sisters and move together collectively for the good of the whole, we should do that.”

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