Battle rages on in Tennessee over Confederate monuments


Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Memphis (file)

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Tennessee tranquility slowly surrendering to battle cries of bloodshed.

1861: Civil War explodes across the continent like a thundering Confederate cannonball.

The cold steel clatter of bayonets on muskets. Brother against brother. Blue and Gray — spilling blood red — on Rocky Top and beyond.

It was the most ferocious fight ever on American soil. Yet today, another battle rages on with origins from that deeply divided past.

The monument debate has proven to be another watershed moment. This time, a war of words over historical preservation and haunting echoes of the past.

► Recent coverage of the Confederate monument debate

"And maybe these statues were put here as factors of intimidation. Reminders and suggestions as to the past. And we can't continue to live that history," said Pastor Keith Norman of First Baptist Church Broad.

"I think they were put there to send a message that the Old South still exists, and don't get it twisted," West Tennessee Commissioner Beverly Robertson said.

That's a familiar refrain in Memphis, but that point of view is not necessarily universal across Tennessee.

For instance, out in the far northeastern part of the state. Rocky Mount was first capital of Tennessee, home of the first official government building. It's also one of the places where the Memphis debate over Confederate monuments could be won or lost.

"I'm sure that African-American people look at it differently," Judge David Tipton said.

The view, and perhaps the viewpoint, is different in the mountaintops of East Tennessee. But one thing is clear: Tipton knows his history.

He's the past president of the Rocky Mount Historical Museum. He's an attorney — a judge. But more importantly, he's one of 24 voting members of the Tennessee Historical Commission.

"I don't know that the Tennessee Historical Commission is going to agree to send the sixth-largest equestrian statue in the world to give it to the state of Mississippi. I don't know if that'll happen...but maybe it could."

It certainly seems like a monumental task since it would take a two-thirds vote for Memphis to win its challenge to Confederate monuments.

In Chattanooga, attorney Sam Elliott is an accomplished Civil War author, a member of numerous historical societies and the state historical commissioner.

"And for the reason known only to the people in the legislature, they decided to take that out of the city of Memphis' hands and put it in ours," he said.

And for the life of her, Robertson can't understand why.

"This city has a right to determine what goes in its public parks, don't you think? Why would the state be determining that for the city of Memphis?"

"One thing that I think everyone needs to understand," Tipton said, "let's be real about it. The legislature passed this law to preserve monuments."

But many, like  Norman, believe there's more behind this than just the law. He believes some on the Commission have a strong conflict of interest.

"The Sons of the Confederacy tend to want to suppress some of the negative history surrounding these statues and the historic figures," he said.

Tipton said he's a "life member" of the Tennessee Division of the Sons of the Confederacy. A member of an organization that celebrates the Confederacy seems to complicate matters for some in West Tennessee.

"I definitely think that if you are affiliated with an organization that is intimately related to the positioning of these monuments, the Sons and the Daughters of the Confederacy, I do believe it would appropriate and fair for you to recuse yourself," Robertson said.

"By saying that, you`re saying that I would have already made up my mind," Tipton said. "And I obviously have some feelings and leanings. All of us do. But just like I said, as a judge, I have feelings, but I follow the law."

Interestingly, because of her background and history as past president of the National Civil Rights Museum, some in East Tennessee will question Robertson's objectivity.

"And they can say whatever they'd like to say," she said, "but I don't think they can prove that I'm affiliated with any organization that has any relationship to the monuments. My past job was as president of the National Civil Rights Museum, and I still say then and I say now that monuments, historic markers and historical information that the public needs to see needs to be placed within a proper context."

Contextually speaking, her colleague Norman is pastor for one of the largest African-American churches in Memphis. He's also a past president of the NAACP.

Addressing his potential conflict of interest, Norman said, "There are some things I disagree with. There are some things others disagree with. Behind me, there's a sign that says 'I am a man.' There's a photo of black Jesus on the wall. I'm sure that there are some people who probably go, 'We shouldn't have those symbols up.' That's why they're in my office, that's why they're in my private space and not on public display."

Does the truth about a historical figure matter when you take these into consideration? If they had a reprehensible character for instance, are they someone that needs to be revered or memorialized or remembered?

"Tell me some American heroes or icons that don't can find some bad in just about all," Tipton responds.

"I don't see many statues up for Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, or even Judas Iscariot."

"Well, in America probably not."

Sam Elliott with the Tennessee Historical Commission has words for his fellow commissioners: "I would expect any member of the Commission to vote their conscience and do what they think is the right thing to do."

In this debate, the right thing to do is still up for debate.

But as the sun sets on another hilltop of heartache, this much is true: The Tennessee countryside is buried with vivid reminders of wars long gone. Velvet green fields, and an endless supply of gravestone dominoes. Monuments to men, their service, their sacrifice.

A welcome reminder that here in the Volunteer State, some things are still worth fighting for.

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