Tennessee, Goddamn: Memphis Fights To Remove Its Confederate Monuments

Protesters attend a rally protesting against the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in front of a statue bearing his likeness in 2005. (Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

Despite the bloodshed in Charleston and Charlottesville, and the national embarrassment of President Trump’s not-so-subtle exoneration of white supremacist terrorism, the fight over the removal of Confederate monuments continues.

Statues of Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest stand in visible spots near downtown Memphis. The city has long had a majority black population. Earlier this month, the City Council voted for the removal of the monuments, but the state legislature, a body of mostly white Republican men from the middle and eastern parts of the state, invoked the Heritage Protection Act, which prevents the removal, rededication, or renaming of monuments to any “military conflict” without a waiver. The state refused the city’s request for a waiver last year and will vote again this October. The Memphis Flyer calls this reckoning the “Battle of Memphis.”

At the Intercept, journalist Liliana Segura details the crimes of General Forrest, who traded in slaves before the Civil War, and led a massacre of mostly black Union troops that led to his censure after the war. The state needs to ask itself serious questions about why Forrest was ever honored. Segura shows the agency of the Tennessee’s black citizens, and reveals the state’s disdain for the citizens of Memphis.

On April 1, 2013, Gov. Haslam signed the bill into law. Soon afterward, a press release from the N. B. Forrest Camp 215 of Memphis began to make the rounds on Confederate-themed email lists. It hailed the Heritage Protection Act as a model for other states, while boasting that its “basic text” had been written by the group’s own Lee Millar, a leading Sons of Confederate Veterans member based in Memphis.

Millar, a former Shelby County sheriff’s deputy, is among Forrest’s most active defenders. He was the reunion chairperson for an SCV gathering in Memphis this past July, where a commemorative poster featured the Forrest statue in its original bronze glory. In 2015, after nationwide calls to remove Confederate icons following Dylann Roof’s massacre of black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, Millar held a rally at the statue to honor Forrest’s birthday. More than 500 attendees “carried rebel flags and wore T-shirts bearing slogans like Confederate Lives Matter,” according to the New York Times.

Over email, Millar confirmed that he was “one of the authors” of the Heritage Protection Act. But he said the idea had been in the works for years. “I had been refining this for several months when I and others felt it was time to introduce to the Tenn Legislature,” he wrote. “The timing had nothing to do with the carnival actions of the city council of Memphis.” McDaniel demurred. “I had input from a lot of people,” he said over the phone. “Lee has offered suggestions from time to time on things he thought might improve it,” but “he didn’t write the bill. … I don’t know if I used any of his stuff or not.”

Nevertheless, the law is certainly obstructionist by design.

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