Tami Sawyer standing before the Jefferson Davis Memorial in Downtown Memphis. Photo courtesy of Tami Sawyer

Memphis, Tennessee. 2017. My hometown, sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. In the center of that bluff sits a statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis with an engraving that honors him as “a true American Patriot.” This engraving is an error. In actuality, Jefferson Davis was a condemned traitor, slave owner and racist. Far from an ideal American or a Patriot.

Last Friday, I called for a public meeting for the people of Memphis to discuss our collective action to have the statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and Jefferson Davis removed from our public parks. There is no justification in my mind for these statues to continue to stand. Removing statues does not erase history. These are monuments to symbols of racism and hatred and nothing more.

This morning, I read that Karl Oliver, a Republican state representative from Mississippi, threatened to lynch Louisiana leaders, anywhere, who moves Confederate statues. Oliver represents Money, Mississippi, the city where Emmitt Till was murdered by white men who were protected by their government. While Oliver has issued a vapid apology, the call for violence has been echoed throughout the country and support for him continues to flow. I take Oliver’s threat of assault personally. Any elected official threatening assault against anyone, should be forced to resign. He has made me, personally, feel unsafe and unprotected. In light of this weekend’s murder of black college student, Lt. Richard Collins III, by a white supremacist, Oliver’s words are especially dangerous. His apology has no weight because you cannot unring a bell. While Oliver might not take up the noose himself, there are many who are emboldened by his call to action.

Threats against the bodies of black people who fight for change are by no means new. For example, last summer, a white man threatened to throw me in the Mississippi River for speaking in support of the Memphis Bridge Protest.

Today, I arrived at Memphis Park, formerly known as Confederate Park, where the Jefferson Davis statue stands. I was there for a television interview regarding the upcoming meeting to remove Memphis’ Confederate statues. During my interview a group of Confederate memorabilia wearing and flag holding white people walked to our side of the park and one of the men approached us. He stood directly behind my interviewer and waved his flag.

When the interview was over he attempted to greet me. I did not give my name but remained polite. The man told me to “Take care of myself.” I stiffened, hearing the threat and wondering if he was there to answer Oliver’s call to action. For a moment, I felt the fear which they hope will keep us in a state of inaction.

KKK Grand Wizard and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in a Memphis park that until a few years ago, bore his name. Forrest and his wife are buried beneath the statue.

Unfortunately, for people like the Confederate apologists I faced today and Oliver, I will not give up this fight. I will not give up even though I know that our country uses violence and murder to silence black people. I know that at 6 p.m. Monday when the interviews I completed airs, my name and face will be permanently in the minds of those who wish to answer Oliver’s call.

I won’t be intimidated by the threats and I know my fellow Memphians won’t either. We will meet on June 20 as scheduled and we will get these statues down.

See Sawyer’s interview with Fox13 Memphis here.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Read the 2016 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, the state law that governs what can be done with war memorials in the state.
Read more about how the Heritage Protection Act came to be.
Learn about how the city of New Orleans was able to remove four Confederate monuments. In the Washington Post and New York Times.
Listen to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explain why the memorials had to come down. (Or read the transcript here.)

Familiarize yourself with the Tennessee Historical Commission, two-thirds of which would have to agree to a waiver to remove Confederate monuments in Memphis. 
Watch the historical commission’s upcoming rule making meeting, where the 29-member commission will work on the rules that govern the Heritage Protection Act. The meeting, held in Nashville, will be broadcast starting at 1:30 p.m. June 13 at the Memphis Environmental Field Office, 8383 Wolf Lake Drive.
Attend the June 20 community meeting to discuss action steps to remove Confederate monuments in Memphis.

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