MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The mayor of Memphis is pushing back after the Tennessee Historical Commission said it will not consider the city’s request to move a controversial statue in the Medical District at its upcoming meeting in October.
Mayor Jim Strickland said the city was told it would be at least another four months before the commission will even consider the petition to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.
“Most this community, the vast majority of Memphis, wants these statues down but wants to do it legally,” Strickland said. “When I was on the city council, we voted to take these down, that’s like three or four years ago. It’s time for a decision.”
The decision to delay the hearing was “made without a vote of the commission,” the mayor said in a news release.
“Memphis is as unified on this as anything we’ve seen — from Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, the business community, and 177 diverse members of the clergy. Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative — we’re all behind this.”
Sam Elliott with the historical commission recently explained why the criteria considered is intricate and lengthy.
“So that the public can have confidence that the process that the historical commission went through was appropriate and well-considered and deliberate.”
But Strickland says only one person on the historical commission asked to delay the vote on moving the statue.
“I know there are commissioners who want us to take a vote.”
The mayor will be attending the October 13th meeting and will personally make a request for commissioners to hear the waiver petition.
On Friday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans released a statement saying the are “pleased” with the commission’s stance.
“This ruling confirms that there are laws in place regarding these procedures and that the legal process will be followed, as expected. And we expect the City of Memphis and all its citizens to abide by the laws and the legal process,” Lee Millar said. “The SCV and the Forrest family members continue to strive for the retention of all monuments and statues and the preservation of our American history.”
State law prohibits any statue from being removed without a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission. The group denied the city’s first request to move it.
The Memphis City Council approved an ordinance that would remove the 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.
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 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.”