VOL. 42 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 12, 2018
Shot fired from Memphis ignites Civil War rematch
Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest died in 1877, but 140 years later some people just can’t let their hero or the Old South go away.
In fact, the state Legislature is set to reignite the Civil War – to some degree – in 2018. We hope no gunshots are fired.
Democratic lawmakers are expected to file legislation calling for the removal of Forrest’s bust from the state Capitol after the Capitol Commission defied Gov. Bill Haslam’s request to move it to the State Museum in 2017.
And Republican legislators are awaiting a state investigation into the Memphis City Council’s sale of park lands to a nonprofit agency and the subsequent removal of Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues.
Considering the 2018 session is expected to be mundane and short as lawmakers try to get out early and campaign for re-election, maybe this debate over the last 250-plus years of American history will spice up the affair. Sadly, it is likely to overshadow solutions for juvenile justice reform and opioid addiction.
But our lawmakers are good at multi-tasking, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on dealing with a good number of serious problems.
Delving into Memphis’ move
The day after the Memphis City Council voted to sell two city parks to Memphis Greenspace, which led to the removal of the embattled Forrest and Davis statues, House Republican Majority Leader Glen Casada and Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams called for an immediate state probe, questioning whether Memphis officials violated sunshine laws by working outside the public eye, whether anyone gained financially from the sale of the two parks at a low price and whether the removal of the statues violated state law.
“The Tennessee Historical Commission has already voted to deny the city’s application to remove these statues, and this decision in Shelby County, at a minimum, completely violates both the spirit and intent of state law in protecting Tennessee history. We are governed by the rule of law here in Tennessee, and these actions are a clear infringement of this principal and set a dangerous precedence for our state,” the statement from Casada and Williams reads.
They’re working with House Speaker Beth Harwell’s office, the attorney general, comptroller and anyone who gives a hoot about keeping the Confederacy alive “to further investigate this situation and recommend action to the full body of the Legislature.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally concurs, saying Memphis “might have very shaky legal basis” for the property deal. “But I think they certainly did violate the spirit of the law, and what’s even more concerning, if you look at the way it happened, it appears to have been greased, and, by that, I mean it appears they have met together, absent press notification, and formulated this plan.”
The Memphis angle
In fact, the council didn’t publicly discuss the parks’ sale to Memphis Greenspace in advance, though it did have an ordinance pending for several different options, such as closing the parks or installing memorials to lynching victims around the Forrest statue, as it negotiated the outcome of legal action with the state.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration had been waiting for a hearing on whether the Forrest monument was a war memorial and, therefore, fell under the auspices of the Tennessee Historical Commission.
But amid some back and forth on mediation that was pushed off until the new year, the Memphis City Council apparently decided it was time to thumb its nose at the state government. On Dec. 20, instead of voting on a measure dealing with gas and electric rate increases, the council instead took up the monument ordinance, and Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. asked to substitute an ordinance selling the two parks to Greenspace.
It passed, and the monuments came down hours later, much to the chagrin of Forrest disciples. (The remains of Forrest and his wife remain there.)
Previously, the council approved a separate ordinance allowing the city to sell property at less than fair market value with the restriction the land couldn’t be developed and must be used for public use. That measure didn’t receive any discussion, either, before passage.
Clearly, the council was less than transparent by avoiding talk about the decision.
Yet considering Mayor Strickland was committed to removing these statues “in a lawful way,” the move should come as no surprise. He contends the city followed state law from the outset, laying the groundwork over several months to sell the parks to the nonprofit group.
“In the days after the August events in Charlottesville, we saw an avalanche of support come together behind our efforts. So, it’s important that we not forget the sea change that made today a reality: Republicans and Democrats, a unanimous city and county government, Gov. Haslam, scores of diverse members of the clergy, prominent members of the business community, and citizen demonstrators came together to support the same cause,” Strickland said after the sale.
He added he’s never seen “such solidarity” in his life in Memphis.
Strickland has the support from two black lawmakers from the Bluff City who are fed up with Forrest’s shadow looming over Memphis and the State Capitol.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, says the Historical Commission was “bullsh----ing” when the city sought a waiver to remove the Forrest and Davis monuments.
“And you couldn’t have a conversation with them, so (the city) found a way to get around it,” Parkinson says.
But did they circumvent state law?
“Hey, do what you gotta do. That’s my take on it. Make it happen,” Parkinson adds.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, another Memphis Democrat who plans to sponsor legislation to remove Forrest’s bust from the Capitol, makes his disdain for the Historical Commission no secret.
“I think the Historical Commission is controlled by a neo-Confederate, the white supremacists, the white nationalists and Confederate sympathizers. Everyone on the commission is not such. But the influence on the commission appears to be such,” Hardaway says.
“So, I think the investigation, if my colleagues are looking to investigate, that they must include conflict of interest investigations of the Tennessee Historical Commission.”
No question, pushing any waiver through the Historical Commission is difficult. The year after the Heritage Protection Act passed, the Legislature toughened it by requiring a two-thirds vote of the commission to remove war-related monuments. The commission moves so slowly, it hadn’t even “promulgated” its rules when it voted on the Memphis request. It still hasn’t considered a languishing Middle Tennessee State University request to drop Forrest’s name from its ROTC hall.
The problem goes even deeper, though, than Confederate monuments, Hardaway says, in that it allows the state to pre-empt the efforts of city governments.
With an eye toward that, did the Memphis City Council execute a flanking maneuver on state law?
“No,” explains Hardaway, who has faith in the city attorney to provide sound advice. “I think it’s quite simply the Sons of the Confederacy and the other neo-Confederate sympathizers, that they have been out-lawyered. It’s that simple.”
And since the city of Memphis and Tennessee are already in court, the issue can be resolving within the existing lawsuit, Hardaway adds.
Rally cry hard to hear
Alt-righters threatened a Memphis march last weekend similar to the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one counter-protester was killed and two state troopers died when their helicopter crashed. But only a couple dozen white nationalists showed up near the former Forrest park to complain that diversity would destroy the white race. A caravan of vehicles toured the I-240 loop, as well, before high-tailing it back to Mississippi, according to reports.
Some of these people are so virulently racist they’re hardly worth a look. But people are paranoid after the Charlottesville disaster, so local and state authorities set up enough security to hold off an army of irritants.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans Memphis Brigade had been complaining for weeks on Facebook about District Attorney General Amy Weirich’s refusal to investigate the City Council and those involved in the Greenspace land sale. As if Weirich doesn’t have enough to do already.
But not even the SCV is as nutty as some of these people fighting to resurrect Forrest. For those who defend the dead general as someone who found God late in life and suddenly became a defender of black people after enslaving, selling and torturing them most of his life, take a look at those fighting for his honor: the KKK, League of the South, neo-Nazis and other assorted bigots.
Do Tennessee’s Republicans really want to be partners with these groups? Lt. Gov. McNally, Glen Casada and Ryan Williams are better than that.
The Ku Klux Klan, with Forrest as its first grand wizard, might have started as some sort of underground brotherhood to knock heads with carpetbaggers and pro-Union forces during Reconstruction. But it morphed instantly into a terrorist organization and ran roughshod over the country for the next 100 years, violating the civil rights of black people and killing them if they dared to stand up and take their rightful place in American society after centuries of repression.
That one group set an entire nation back for decades, stuck in the mind-set of 1800.
So, while Forrest might have been one of the best maneuvering generals in the Civil War, able to outsmart a bunch of drunken Northern military men, his legacy was doomed from the days the KKK decided to use the “Wizard of the Saddle” to legitimize its existence.
The city of Memphis, the place where Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 when he visited to help the city’s striking black garbage workers, should be congratulated for coming together – at long last – to deal with its own problems.
Instead, the Legislature’s Republican leaders are ready to pound Memphians over the collective head for trying to secede from one of the state’s silly laws.
The Legislature talks a lot about “overreach.” And the Heritage Protection Act is a prime example, because it is clearly designed to tie the hands of Memphis and other entities trying to get rid of these Confederate monuments.
If anyone should be accused of trying to sanitize history, it’s those who say Forrest should be memorialized as a great military leader of the cause of – keeping slavery alive.
With plenty of ammunition, therefore, Memphis’ Hardaway is ready to move forward as the Legislature opens for business.
“I think that maybe we’ll have more conversation on the whole issue of whether we’re reliving and trying to revive the culture of the Old South or whether we’re trying to move ahead or whether we’re going to allow neo-Confederate sympathizers to drive our society today,” Hardaway points out.
Quite simply, he wants legislators to take a step past that mind-set and start working together as equals. The question is whether that’s too much to ask.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald.