Below the equestrian statue of Confederate General and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest lay the remains of he and his wife. Photo by Micaela Watts

If the city of Memphis has any chance of removing or relocating its Confederate monuments, it will be up to the Tennessee Historical Commission to OK the move.

On Tuesday, that commission will begin establishing rules that will govern whether the city can remove monuments, a pressing issue for those who believe that the glorification of the Confederacy has no place in a majority black city

Twenty-nine members make up the commission; Eight from each of the state’s three grand divisions, plus five ex-officio members, including Republican Gov.Bill Haslam and the state historian, Carroll Van West.

For this part of the process, the public will be allowed to weigh in on the rules that the commission will later adopt.

The state historical commission’s executive director, Patrick McIntyre, referred to the process as complicated.

It is. But for those who want to see the equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave-trade profiteer and Confederate general, dethroned from his high-visibility location in a city park, the hearing offers one of the first opportunities for public input.

The commission will consider citizen comments if submitted by 4:30 p.m. Tuesday by email, fax or mail. (See contact information at the bottom of this story.)

But already local activist Tami Sawyer has been laying the groundwork for Memphians who want the monument removed. She’s scheduled a June 20 community meeting and has circulated an online petition that has gathered more than 1,100 signatures.

“These statues weren’t built to teach history, they were built to wash away history,” said Sawyer. “That’s what the founders of these monuments wanted to do — erase any negative history of the Confederacy.”

The current debate over the statues started in earnest in 2013. That’s when the Republican-dominated state legislature passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which stripped local governments of the power to remove Confederate Statues, The law states that no memorial dedicated to any war can be “relocated, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed.”

Wanting to get ahead of the bill’s passage, the City Council hurriedly passed an ordinance renaming three public parks — Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park.

Forrest Park, where the graves of Forrest and his wife were laid, was renamed Health Sciences Park in a nod to the nearby medical school, University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

In February 2013, The Ku Klux Klan staged a protest in response to the park’s renaming. Though they promised thousands of members would attend, roughly 60 members of the white supremacist group showed up downtown.

In 2015, Mayor A C Wharton’s administration asked the state historical commission for a waiver, so that the city could remove the remains and monument from Health Sciences Park.

But the commission denied the waiver, citing the 2013 law that “a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places is not subject to a waiver.”

But in order for the waiver’s denial to stick, the commission must formally adopt not only the 2013 version of the law, but a 2016 version as well — one that was revised in order to make removing Confederate symbolism even more difficult.

New Orleans Fuels Memphis Movement

Activist Tami Sawyer in front of the Jefferson Davis monument in downtown Memphis. Credit: Tami Sawyer

Tuesday’s hearing comes amid reinvigorated discussions across the country about whether these monuments should have a place of honor in the public eye.

For several Southern states, the growing public pressure to remove symbols of the Confederacy began to take traction following the June, 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners attending Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylan Roof.

Roof, a mass murderer who ascribes to white supremacy, has an online trail of photos picturing him brandishing the Confederate flag.

Four Confederate monuments were recently taken down in New Orleans, after the City Council declared them a public nuisance. Like Memphis, the population of New Orleans is more than 60 percent black.

The monthlong process of decommissioning all four monuments had its fair share of controversy, including tense face-offs by both sides of the debate and multiple lawsuits filed.

In a speech that went viral, the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, addressed both advocates and detractors of the monuments’ removal.

YouTube video

Those that insist monuments to the Confederacy must be preserved, Landrieu explained, must acknowledge Confederacy monuments materialized not from a place of honoring history, but from a desire to hide that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity, and to further intimidate black New Orleanians only a generation or two removed from slavery.

“After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city,” Landrieu said in his May speech.

Days later, Mayor Jim Strickland took to social media to explain why New Orleans had more autonomy in its decisions, and why Memphis is bound by a different set of rules and criteria. This Tuesday, the criteria that Strickland referenced will begin to take shape.

At the meeting, McIntyre will read two rules and the corresponding 13 criterion that will guide the commission when deciding to issue a waiver to the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. .

Those rules include evaluating any economic impact the proposed change might have and whether the proposed change diminishes the historic integrity of the site.

The first rule listed — “Whether the proposed change serves the public interest” — is at the core of the movement to relocate Forrest’s grave and monument, as activists such as Sawyer question the logic of memorials to a movement based on preserving slavery in a majority-black city.

Recently, Memphis launched the Fourth Bluff Project — a series of pop-up recreational events in downtown parks. Like Forrest Park, Downtown’s Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis park were renamed in 2013, but the public spaces still hold monuments to the Confederacy.

“The fact that events and programs are planned around these statues excludes the majority of the population from safe and equitable spaces,” said Sawyer. “This could be a federal lawsuit, this could be a public relations nightmare. But it’s the state and our city who have to decide what it will be.”

Where do we go from here?

Participate by submitting written comments to the Tennessee Historical Commission, you can email Patrick McIntyre, Written comments must be received by 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 13.

The hearing is in Nashville, but it will be broadcast via teleconference in Memphis, where attendees can speak. The Memphis teleconference will be in the conference room of the Memphis Environmental Field Office, 8383 Wolf Lake Drive.

Follow MLK50 and reporter Micaela Watts on Twitter Tuesday as she live tweets from the historical commission’s Memphis teleconference. #takeemdown901

Read about the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act and read activist Tami Sawyer’s column for MLK50 about the monuments.

Read more about the 2013 KKK protest in response to renaming Forrest Park, named after the hate group’s first grand wizard. Samantha Bryson, then a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, rode along with members of the KKK, capturing their entrance into the protest in a series of tweets.