Capitol Commission to review which historical figures should be honored

Friday, June 19, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 25
By Sam Stockard

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell are encouraging the Tennessee Capitol Commission to evaluate the characteristics of Tennesseans honored in the Capitol Complex.

“From time to time, it is appropriate for the State of Tennessee to review which Tennesseans are honored and in what location and manner,” states a letter from Ramsey and Harwell, both Republicans, to the commission.

It notes Gov. Bill Haslam has pointed to a limited amount of space in the Capitol and its grounds and states those honored in the Capitol should “accurately reflect the historic accomplishments of the Volunteer State and its people.”

The letter comes in the wake of comments by Haslam that a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest should be removed from the Capitol and placed in a museum.

Haslam and several state leaders, including U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, Democratic Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and party leaders Republican Ryan Haynes and Democrat Mary Mancini, agreed state connections to Confederate symbols such as Forrest and license plates with the Stars and Bars should be eliminated in the aftermath of a massacre at a Charleston, S.C., church.

Dylann Roof, who reportedly wanted to start a race war, is charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of nine people, including a minister, June 17 at historically-black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Since then, South Carolina leaders have debated removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse, with Gov. Nikki Haley leading the charge to take it down.

Tennessee does not use the Confederate flag as a symbol, but the Legislature and governor did approve license plates with the Rebel flag.

The Forrest bust was placed in the Capitol in 1973, honoring the Confederate war hero who was born in Chapel Hill.

After the Civil War, he became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan but later repudiated the organization in a congressional hearing looking into violence in Tennessee during Reconstruction.

In their letter to the Capitol Commission, Ramsey and Harwell point out the commission holds the power to set up a master plan for the Capitol building and grounds to determine furnishings.

The Tennessee State Historian, the Tennessee Historical Commission, Tennessee State Museum, Tennessee Wars Commission, Tennessee Historical Society and other entities could be consulted, the letter notes.

“In addition, we encourage you to consider the ideas of all Tennesseans who wish to have their input considered,” the letter states.

In a separate statement, however, Ramsey took on a slightly different tone.

Saying his condolences and prayers go to the families and communities affected by the “mass murder” in Charleston, Ramsey called it a “truly horrific and tragic event that will not and should not be forgotten.”

“But the effort under way to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in our State Capitol strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction.”

Ramsey points out Forrest was a native Tennessean recognized as one of history’s great military commanders. Ramsey states he can’t defend everything Forrest did during his life and couldn’t do that for anyone except Jesus Christ.

With the Tennessee Capitol Commission set to meet and take up the issue, Ramsey states, “Whether the bust stays or goes, I am concerned that we are rapidly descending down the slippery slope of political correctness. Now more than ever it is important to keep in mind that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”