Update: The Memphis City Council decided Monday to wait until Sept. 5 before deciding what to do about the presence of two Confederate statues in public areas. Then, the council will choose between resolutions on four options that include:
- Immediate removal through storage or destruction
- Selling them at auction or private sale
- Seeking a state historical waiver, including asking Gov. Bill Haslam to convene a special session of the Tennessee Historical Commission to consider the city’s request for waiver
- Boarding them up for protection while the statues remain technically out of sight
Even then, Mayor Jim Strickland has the final say.
In explaining the options, City Attorney Allan Wade explained how the waiver process would be unduly cumbersome, taking about a year, and wouldn’t likely result in removal, according to Tami Sawyer, creator of #TakeEmDown901.
“It’s probably easier to have someone executed by lethal injection than to get a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission,” according to Wade, quoted in the Commercial Appeal.
Option №4, boxing up the monuments, could give local artists an opportunity to create external expressions showing a better vision of Memphis and its residents, Sawyer told MLK50.
Until then, the red tape and waiting is worrisome, said Councilman Martavius Jones, who doesn’t see any downside to removing the statues right now, regardless of the machinations of state law. His advice for Mayor Jim Strickland?
“If I were him, I’d take them down,” Jones said.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s support, plus negative reactions to President Trump’s embrace of white supremacy in defending Civil War monuments proves there’s no real risk of backlash.
“In this climate, it’s hard to see retaliation,” Jones said.
— Ryan Poe 〽️ (@ryanpoe) August 22, 2017
The controversy over Memphis’ Confederate statues could take a dramatic turn today if the City Council votes to finally remove the statues and the mayor follows suit.
At 2:15 p.m., the council will meet in an executive session to consider the immediate removal or sale of the monuments of Confederates Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences and Jefferson Davis, which are situated in Downtown parks. The word “immediate” was added Monday to a previously published announcement.
#TakeEmDown901, activists delivered several copies of a 4,500-signature petition today supporting the call to remove the statues.
“This petition was created in June 2017 by the #TakeEmDown901 effort,” according to Tami Sawyer of #TakeEmDown901. “The original addresses on the petition are Governor Bill Haslam, Mayor Jim Strickland and five officials with the Tennessee Historical Commission. We submit this copy electronically, and you will all be receiving the hard copy via courier today. We send this to address the belief that #TakeEmDown901 has not sent any correspondence to the state nor to the THC. We have.”
On Friday, State Sen. Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, stepped in with a faster solution, filing a bill to make it easier to bypass the state in these matters, leaving the decision up to locals.
Today, I filed SB 1467 which would exempt Shelby County from the Heritage Protection Act.
— Sen. Sara Kyle (@SaraforTN) August 18, 2017
(1/2) People in Memphis have made it abundantly clear they don’t want a giant statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in their park.
— Sen. Sara Kyle (@SaraforTN) August 18, 2017
But if Mayor Jim Strickland’s lengthy Facebook post Sunday is any indication, he is still intent on taking the slow route to removing the statues. That route requires asking the 29-member Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver to remove the monuments. The commission has already rejected an earlier waiver request, which requires a two-thirds vote.
Strickland’s post, in which he reminded the public of his life NAACP membership, volunteer efforts and mentorship of “a kid,” riled many of the 250 protesters recovering from what began as a peaceful, agenda-setting #TakeEmDown901 rally Saturday. The rally ended after activists tried to drape the Forrest statue with a banner and police forcibly removed them from the park.
After police arrested seven activists, dozens of others marched down Union Avenue in sweltering heat toward the Shelby County Criminal Justice Complex. Activists held an all-night vigil outside the jail while waiting for the six men and one woman to be bailed out. Ron Brown was cleared of disorderly conduct charges Monday; the others will face a judge in September.
On Facebook, Strickland bristled at The Commercial Appeal’s Sunday story headlined, “Rally leaders say Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland not showing clear leadership.” The mayor emphasized how he is working through official channels. That includes appealing to the state’s historical commission, which next meets Oct. 13 in Athens, Tennessee, which is more than 350 miles and about a five-hour drive from Memphis.
“My administration is the only one in the history of Memphis to not only vote to remove these statues — but to take real action to do it,” Strickland wrote on Facebook.
Indeed, the city plans to sue the state to remove the monuments, which would occur if the city doesn’t receive a waiver from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016, which prohibits the removal or altering of military-related monuments.
In decrying media coverage as divisive, racial politics, Strickland frustrated Sawyer since most activists believe the presence of Confederate monuments in public spaces is itself a form of racial intimidation.
I want every Memphian to see the divisive, empty rhetoric that the media chooses to highlight.
— Mayor Jim Strickland (@MayorMemphis) August 21, 2017
In fact, most statues were erected in times of civil rights strife, according to historians and the Southern Poverty Law Center. For example, a timeline shows a monument building boom around 1909 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded, and again in 1962, around the time of James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi.
“If anything, his post was racial politics,” said Sawyer, suggesting Strickland was engaging in a dog-whistle approach to appeal to his largely white base. “It was very patriarchal. [The administration’s] tone has been patriarchal and condescending from the beginning.”
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Ursula Madden, focused on Strickland’s feelings rather than the underlying issue of what the monuments represent in a city beset by high poverty rates for blacks and low poverty rates for whites, poor public transit, little (albeit growing) city contracting with black-owned businesses, among other issues.
Madden told a local TV station, “If someone had alluded you were a white supremacist, you would be offended. The mayor was offended. He’s a human being. He has feelings and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s absurd.”
However, one of the rally’s organizers, Rev. Earle Fisher, told a local TV station that the Strickland “administration is leaning day by day, more and more toward white supremacist apologetics and white supremacist sympathizers … and he has to pick a stronger side.”
In a culture of white supremacy, politics are racial by proxy. You’re mayor of a majority black city. That matters. Lead like it.
— Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D. (@Pastor_Earle) August 21, 2017
Americans are certainly picking sides, a new poll shows. A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows more than half of Americans — 54 percent, — support leaving Confederate monuments intact in public spaces. The Aug. 18–21 poll found 27 percent of respondents said the monuments “should be removed from all public spaces,” and 19 percent said they “don’t know.”
The #TakeEmDown901 weekend rally came a week after Unite the Right white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, to fight that city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee left the Union to fight for the Confederacy. In Boston on Saturday, supporters of a rally purporting to promote free speech were far outnumbered by anti-Nazi, anti-racist protesters.
Taking Confederate monuments down is easy when the resolve is there, said Sawyer, pointing to multiple statue removals Sunday night at the University of Texas at Austin. Birmingham, Alabama officials covered one such monument in a downtown park, defying state officials.
In a place where city officials saw fit to provide protection and tactical support to the Sons of Confederate Veterans reunion this summer, Sawyer said the City of Memphis is sending a strong message of where its loyalties lie, and it’s not with the majority black citizenry.
To Strickland, Sawyer said: “If you are the uniter of the people, stand up for us.”