Nathan Bedford Forrest bust set to leave Tennessee Capitol after historic panel vote


Note: This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. with comments from Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton.

Visitors walk past a bust of Confederate General and the first leaders of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest at the State Capitol on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. A decades-long effort to remove the bust from the Tennessee Capitol passed its final hurdle Thursday, with heads of state approving the final vote needed to allow the statue to be moved to a museum. (George Walker IV / Tennessee via AP)

NASHVILLE – The bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a 43-year-old member of the Tennessee Capitol who has sparked anger and protests since arriving in 1978, leaves the building.

In a landmark decision, members of the State Building Commission voted 5-2 Thursday to remove the 44-inch-tall bronze bust of Forrest, a pre-Civil War slave trader and the first great wizard of Ku Klux Klan, from his perch of honor in front of the Senate and House Chambers on the second floor of the Capitol.

The bust will be transferred to the Tennessee State Museum with preparations starting Thursday and removal starting Friday.

Busts of Union Admiral David Farragut and US Admiral Albert Gleaves will also leave the Capitol. They were added to the removal plans as part of a political deal, and all three will be part of an exhibit that seeks to place their lives and careers in historical context.

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Nathan Bedford Forrest bust to be removed

Forrest’s bust was placed on Capitol Hill in 1978 with then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, one of the main players in the effort. The bust has since attracted protests and sometimes arrests of protesters over several decades.

While previous efforts to remove it have failed, it has succeeded this time with Governor Bill Lee take up the cause, occasionally clashing with a number of fellow Republican members of the legislature, including Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, Speaker of the Senate, and Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, both of whom sit on the building committee .

Lee, who is chairman of the building committee but like his predecessors rarely attends meetings, made a rare appearance. The item came on the agenda. There was no speech for or against. And then came the 5-2 vote, McNally and Sexton voting no.

Lee then quickly left the meeting.

Earlier, the governor told reporters that “it went on for a year, and it is an appropriate step in this process. It is very important to me that we followed the process. We talked about it from the start.”

McNally said in a statement his position on the bust has been “clear and consistent for a number of years. I think context is needed, but not withdrawal.”

“No one is claiming that Forrest is not a problematic character. He is. But there is more to his story. His life ultimately followed a redemptive arc, which I hope is described in detail in our museum. of State. “

McNally has said that few figures in American history can withstand modern scrutiny without blemish. He predicted that “Left activists who advance an anti-American and anti-history agenda here in Tennessee and across the country will not stop with Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“The awakened crowd ultimately means uprooting and rejecting not only symbols of the South, but American heroes and history as well,” the speaker added.

Sexton said that trying to judge the actions of past generations “on the basis of today’s values ​​and changing societies is not an exercise I’m prepared to do because I think it is. is counterproductive “. The speaker called “any attempt to erase the past only aligns society with the teaching of communism, which believes that the present dominates the past”.

Sexton said the legislature “has tried to follow process and procedure in a respectful manner,” then added: “Going forward, the legislature will work to revise the current law to include a more prominent voice of elected officials.” .

The bust controversy has escalated over the past year amid the COVID-19[female[feminine pandemic and social upheaval due to police shootings of unarmed black men.

Nashville social activist Justin Jones, who has protested for years against Forrest’s bust – when arrested during a demonstration – said that “the key word that comes to mind is ‘finally.’ C ‘is long overdue. We have had three votes like this and even more under Gov. Bill Haslam. “

Jones said that while “this is a step forward, we know the work continues. What this statue represents, in the end, must also be lowered.”

While his predecessor Haslam was thwarted in his efforts to remove the bust by the State Capitol Commission and the Tennessee Historical Society, Lee moved forward last year. He had the help of then-controller Justin Wilson, a member of the building commission, who said Henry’s family didn’t want Forrest’s bust to overshadow their father’s legacy.

Wilson offered the compromise of moving the busts of Farragut and Gleaves to the museum as part of a comprehensive deal, which the commission agreed to.

Lee then appointed a series of new members to the Tennessee Historical Commission, which, in a 25-to-1 vote earlier this year, approved the withdrawal.

McNally and Sexton later said they believed the building commission had a legal role. State Attorney General Herbert Slatery said there was a legal rationale for this and the issue was therefore referred to the panel.

Lee himself had been less supportive of impeachment when he ran for governor in 2018. But that started to change after The Tennessean in 2019 posted a story with a yearbook photo of Lee as Auburn University student wearing a Confederate uniform with other students in period costume. .

There was also controversy over a law requiring the governor to sign a state proclamation each year declaring July 13 “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day”. Lee was successful in persuading lawmakers to remove the requirement to sign the proclamation, allowing the day to take effect each year without a signature.

Considered a brilliant military tactician whose military exploits remain studied to this day, Forrest has long been controversial. Under his command of Confederate troops, a massacre of federal troops, many of them blacks, took place at Fort Pillow in western Tennessee.

Forrest was blamed for the massacre, although some argue he was not responsible and others that the Black Union soldiers continued to fight.

Forrest became the great wizard of the Ku Klux Klan shortly after the group’s founding in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866. He is said to have abandoned the KKK about a year later and sought to dissolve it.

According to a July 6, 1875 account in The Memphis Appeal newspaper, Forrest addressed what was described as a “peace rally” of blacks in Memphis linked to July 4. Noting that some white people had criticized his coming to the event, Forrest was quoted as saying, “It has always been my motto to uplift every man – not to depress any man. I want to elevate you to positions in law firms, in stores, on farms, wherever you may be able to go. “

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @ AndySher1.

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