Saturday, August 19
About 10 marked Memphis Police Department cars could be seen early on at the #TakeEmDown901 rally where initially about 100 protesters showed up, though the crowd eventually grew much larger. Early arrivals waited in the shade and under umbrellas to avoid the scorching sun.
Soon, the heat became more than just a metaphor as things turned tense with police reaching for an anti-racism sign unfurled in front of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Health Sciences Park. That sign was eventually briefly draped across the statue as protesters climbed up to give it their version of a historic makeover. As police arrested eight people, according to organizers, proceeding to take them to the Shelby County Criminal Justice Complex at 201 N. Poplar, about 200 people followed along on foot.
Early on, activists worked to boost energy and communicate their agenda beyond simply removing the monuments but also addressing underlying issues and policies the Confederate statues represent and uphold.
The Rev. Earle Fisher spoke to the symbolic power of statues, “Symbols matter. Symbols communicate what is or is not possible. They are not the end-all, be-all, but symbols matter.”
“Symbols like this,” Fisher said to enthusiastic applause, “are so full of hell, we need to get them the hell out of our public spaces.”
And in another call-and-response exhortation, activist Tami Sawyer urged protesters to focus on education, jobs and transportation after the monuments of pro-slavery Confederates Forrest and Jefferson Davis come down if the movement is successful.
“Our mission is clear,” Sawyer said. “We know that equity does not exist in Memphis. The Memphis we want and believe in is a Memphis for all.”
Standing at the base of the statue, Sawyer reminded the crowd that many statues honoring Confederate leaders were erected long after the Civil War, often during the rise of Jim Crow, and served as “vehicles of injustice and oppression.”
“In 2017,” Sawyer added, “we say no more.”
Danielle Inez, president of Shelby County Young Democrats, addressed Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland through a megaphone. She asked the mayor to “stop hiding behind the State of Tennessee and take action.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” Inez said. “This is not a PR problem. Mr. Mayor, this is an opportunity to represent the interests of your constituents.”
At some point when protesters unfurled the banner, police stepped forward. As this occurred, protesters shouted “No justice, no peace! No racist police! And “Hands up, don’t shoot,” evoking a rallying cry that emerged out of the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Protesters started blocking police cars carrying people under arrest. Both sides of Union Avenue were blocked off as of 4:24 p.m.
Christy Talley, 64, a retired social worker from Millington, told MLK50 she saw police officers holding out their batons as they pushed through the crowd. She said at least one of the protesters was put in a chokehold. Other protesters reported being threatened with pepper spray.
“These statues needed to come down a long time ago,” Talley said, “It’s time to make some big changes.”
As police exited the park, many of the protesters followed them on foot, heading toward the jail. Some people left their signs — reading “No KKK,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Take Em Down” — taped to the statue’s base. In flower beds surrounding the statue, a small, handmade sign is printed with Tennessee Code 46–1–313, which prohibits trespassing or vandalism on cemetery property.
“Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife Mary Ann are both buried here on hallowed, consecrated ground,” the sign reads, “Please be respectful.”
Note: Correspondent Martha Park contributed to this report.
Friday, August 18
Fallout from Charlottesville, Virginia, including President Trump’s statements in favor of preserving more than 1,500 Confederate monuments across the country spurred a collective of student organizations at University of Tennessee Health Science Center to action. About 90 students protested the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue during lunchtime.
Bryan Goodman, president of the Student National Dental Association, said, “The statue was strategically placed to intimidate and terrorize persons of color. People are clear on what its presence means. History is going to be on our side, it’s just a matter of when it’s going to be.”
The question of “when?” might come sooner rather than later since State Sen. Sara Kyle introduced SB 1467 to exempt Shelby County from the state’s Heritage Protection Act so city officials can make their own decision about what to do with Memphis’ Confederate monuments. In a posted statement, Kyle said, “Friends, people in Memphis have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want a giant statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in their park.”
Meanwhile, Memphis City Council has scheduled a 2:15 p.m. Tuesday executive session to discuss the immediate removal or sale of the statues of Forrest and Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park.
Thursday, August 17
The group leading the charge for the removal of Confederate monuments, #TakeEmDown901, announced the next public rally planned 3 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 19. at the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Health Sciences Park.
Memphis talk radio was abuzz following an MLK50 interview with Memphis Grizzlies’ Head Coach David Fizdale, in which the second-year coach for Memphis’ only professional sports franchise blasted President Donald Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville and questioned why the City of Memphis still had monuments honoring the pro-slavery Confederacy.
“For that to sit out there in the wide open in our city, I think, is a disgrace. And to our public officials, I’m challenging you to not put a bunch of red tape in front of us. Don’t create all these silly loopholes and this and that. Take it down; get it out of our city; get it out of sight; and let our city moving forward and into the future and be an example to the rest of the country.”
Wednesday, August 16
During a press conference at City Hall, #TakeEmDown901 organizers Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher read a list of demands relating to Confederate monument removal.
The list, which called for the immediate removal of statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest from Memphis’ parks “by any means necessary,” also called for the city to cease support for any white supremacy groups that attempt to gather in public spaces.
Though they attempted to deliver the list to Mayor Jim Strickland in person, Sawyer and Fisher were stopped by police shortly after entering City Hall.
Strickland, who has yet to meet with organizers since the violence in Charlottesville, did not directly respond to the group’s demands. City Spokeswoman Ursula Madden sent out a statement shortly after the press conference: “There is a reason the people who want the mayor to break the law do not remove the statues themselves — because it’s against the law and they would be arrested,” according to Madden.
Tuesday, August 15
Protesters, many of them local ministers, grabbed dinner to go and planted themselves in front of the Jefferson Davis monument in Downtown Park.
Between prayers and picnics, many faced off with Confederacy supporters — now familiar counterprotesters at #TakeEmDown901 events. The encounter resulted in no violence nor arrests but affirmed for many that supporters of Confederate monuments are aware of the renewed debate and intend to defend their cause.
Monday, August 14
City Attorney Bruce McMullen announced Monday the City of Memphis is preparing to sue the state for the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis monuments.
The lawsuit would be filed after the city files for a waiver from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016 — the state law prohibiting any removal or alteration of military-related monuments.
Assuming the Tennessee Historical Commission denies Memphis’ waiver to remove Jefferson Davis, as they’ve done before with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the city could then move forward with the suit.
The Historical Commission is made up 24 members and five ex officio members including Gov. Bill Haslam. Though Haslam has announced Confederate monuments do not have a place in state-owned spaces, the rest of the commission is unlikely to agree.
Around 10:30 in the evening, half a dozen activists long invested in the plight to remove the Forrest statue showed up at Health Sciences Park. Though it remains unclear whether the group actually intended to attempt a monument removal, it seems unlikely as the group arrived with little to no equipment necessary to relocate a bronze sculpture of Forrest’s size.
Less than seven minutes after the group’s arrival, the Memphis Police Department responded with at least 12 cars, according to activist Hunter Demster, who was at the scene.
“That was just in direct sight,” Demster said. “I’m sure there were 20 or maybe more.”
Saturday, August 12
Within hours of Saturday’s deadly terrorist attack on counterprotesters in Charlottesville, more than 300 people gathered in front of the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in solidarity with the Virginia town under siege by white supremacists.
Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Earle Fisher, a familiar presence in Memphis’ grassroots activism community, called for a swift condemnation of white supremacy and criticized President Trump for taking a moderate approach when addressing the attacks.
“These times do not call for silence,” Fisher said in the downtown park that once bore Forrest’s name.
Following the attack in Charlottesville, President Trump did not blame white supremacy for the violence and chaos taking place during Unite the Right demonstrations but instead blamed “many sides.”
The president’s neutrality didn’t sit well with Fisher.
“You’ll either be on the side of justice or injustice,” Fisher said. “Pick a side.”
“Pick a side” evolved into one of the many chants heard at the early-evening rally, their words carrying extra significance as the crowd chanted under the bronze equestrian statue of Forrest, a slave-trader, Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Forrest monument has been central to an ongoing citizen-led push for the removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy and its leaders.
The deadly violence in Charlottesville occurred after hundreds of white supremacists, many of them armed, gathered to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from public land. As the demonstration broke up, a gray Dodge Challenger plowed through a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, injuring dozens more.
A helicopter carrying two Virginia state troopers crashed en route to the car attack, killing Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates. By Saturday evening, police announced the arrest of James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio. Fields was charged with second-degree murder in connection with Heyer’s death.
The violence in Charlottesville is a physical manifestation of threats Memphis-based activist Tami Sawyer said she receives regularly.
On Saturday afternoon, Sawyer put out the call on social media for the evening rally. A few hours later, she stood in front of a crowd of several hundred people, most of whom were white.
“We asked that in Southern states especially, for people to gather in front of their Confederate statues,” Sawyer said. “The amazing thing is how many people had a place to go.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, also made an appearance at the rally, echoing Fisher’s criticism of the president for his failure to condemn white supremacy as the cause of the violence in Charlottesville. Cohen was the only local elected official present.
“I am truly afraid of what’s happening to our nation, and it starts with Donald Trump, and it ends with Donald Trump. He has encouraged people to come out of hiding, and display their racist and anti-American attitudes,” Cohen said.
Like many public rallies in Memphis over the past year, Saturday’s gathering was held under heavy police presence.
No arrests have been made for violence at recent protests involving people of color. Yet as the rally ended on Saturday with an impromptu march up and down Union Avenue, those marching passed dozens of marked police cars and one vehicle equipped for multiple arrests.
Rally attendee Cole Bradley, who is white, said white people in Memphis and beyond have a responsibility to show up at events like Saturday’s rally.
“This is our heritage of hate,” Bradley said. “We still benefit from this system, we still perpetuate the system, and it’s our responsibility to be here as white people.”