Photo by Micaela Watts

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s public meeting, activist Tami Sawyer guessed that 75 Memphians who wanted to see Confederate monuments removed from public spaces would show up.

But before the discussion even began, more than 250 people packed into the auditorium of Bruce Elementary. After Sawyer had made her opening remarks, stragglers who couldn’t find a seat at the cafeteria tables instead lined the walls.

One by one, dozens of people — black, white, young and old, a descendant of slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest and descendants of slaves — spoke out against the monuments, namely those of Forrest and the singular Confederate States president Jefferson Davis, that sit in city parks.

“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” said 15-year-old Beyonce Cox. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”

Another commenter, Matthew Hollon, wanted to know why there were more statues honoring the fight to maintain slavery than monuments honoring the Civil Rights Movement.

“We’re talking about a man that [perpetuated] a stigma about people of color, one that said they were less than, and deserved to be subjugated,” said Hollon. “What we’re talking about is a government-subsidized stigma.”

Though Tuesday’s meeting didn’t cover strategies to override a state law that forbids the renaming or removal of the monuments, it did provide a chance for citizens to air their opposition to Confederate monuments.

That’s something not often granted to Memphians or Tennesseans, since all matters pertaining to historical markers are governed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, a commission comprised of 29 members, including Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

In October 2016, the commission denied a petition submitted by the Memphis City Council for a waiver from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which explicitly prohibits “any memorial regarding a historic conflict, historic entity, historic figure, or historic organization that is, or is located on, public property, from being removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered.”

The commission has begun the process of adopting new rules for a waiver from the law, which means Memphis will have a second chance to seek a waiver.

But the commission meets only three times a year — the next meeting is in October — which means the timespan between submitting a petition and the commission’s hearing on the petition can be a lengthy one.

As commenters took to the microphone, copies of a letter from Congressman Steve Cohen, stating his support for the removal of the monuments, were passed around the auditorium.

State Senator Lee Harris, who spearheaded the successful efforts as a member of city council to rename three Confederate-themed Memphis parks in 2013 was also present.

Harris and Cohen, both Democrats, are in the minority when it comes to Tennessee politicians vocally opposed to honoring the Confederacy. Over the last four years, lawmakers in the Republican-dominated general assembly have made it more difficult for cities to remove Confederate symbols.

Sawyer began the #TakeEmDown901 campaign with an online petition, but Tuesday’s meeting showed that the effort was more than digital activism.

“I wanted Memphians to know that this wasn’t just something that was happening online. I wanted them to know that this is a force,” she said.

Sawyer said that the comments from the meeting will be transcribed and delivered to the historical commission and local elected officials.

And one commenter had a warning for politicians opposed to removal efforts.

“Standing up for what’s right is more important than a being a law-abiding citizen,” said Charles Belenky, who moved in Memphis in September. 
“The message I want to send to our government today… is that if you don’t take down these statues — we will.”

Where do we go from here?

Follow MLK50 for updates around the #TakeEmDown901 movement.

Sign the petition calling for the removal of these monuments.

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

Read more about the recent Tennessee Historical Commission hearing on the proposed rules for applying for a waiver from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.