The Tennessee Historical Commission decided to punt on the issue of removing the statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest for at least four months.
But Mayor Jim Strickland isn’t taking the unexpected decision laying down. He said he’s going to attend the commission’s scheduled meeting Oct. 13, indicating that City and Shelby County officials are united on the quest to remove from Health Sciences Park what many regard as a painful reminder of black enslavement.
The commission is working out rules for a hearing on the City’s request for a waiver from state law to remove the statue of the slave trader and can’t approach the topic until that’s figured out, according to the Memphis Daily News. It’s harder to move these monuments because of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016.
The unexpected delay by the 29-member body moves the entire question till its February 2018 meeting.
“However, this opinion for delay has been made without a vote of the commission,” according to Strickland’s statement posted on social media. “We are hopeful that a majority of the commission members themselves support our petition and are equally hopeful that this bureaucratic maneuver is not being used to blunt the momentum we’re seeing in our city in support of our petition.”
Memphis-based commission member Beverly Robertson has previously indicated several members are sympathetic with publicly displayed Confederate symbols, including one of Jefferson Davis, also situated in a downtown park. Civil War re-enactment culture is alive and well in Tennessee, she said, and the lure of remembering a fonder version of events stands in direct tension with how celebrating the Confederacy comes across to blacks in Memphis, most of whom are descendants of enslaved Africans.
“… what does the Old South mean to me? It means slavery, being hung, lynched,” Robertson, former longtime president of the National Civil Rights Museum, told MLK50.
Evoking the “peculiar” institution of slavery in local and national monuments is more than an aesthetic one, argues anti-statue advocates, such as Tami Sawyer, creator of #TakeEmDown901. Memphians’ efforts at pursuing education reforms, benefitting from a more inclusive economy and flexing political power is all part of a through-line of unfinished business from slavery, Reconstruction to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement till now.
“So now the Tennessee [Historical] Commission has shown us they are who they stay they are,” Sawyer said in a Facebook video where she threw down the gauntlet: “Mayor Strickland, are you ready to unleash the dogs? Are you ready to take this statue down and fight it in court later?
The unwillingness of state and city officials to move forthwith with a request backed up by 5,000 signatures, a massive protest involving several arrests and commonsense is a slap in the face to local voters, according to Sawyer. The City, too, has collected signatures seeking removal: 177 from local clergy.
Recalling Memphis’ infamous place in civil rights history as the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Sawyer said if the statute still stands on the 50th anniversary — April 4, 2018— Memphis is “the most hypocritical and unjust city in this nation.”
And the issue of removing the Jefferson Davis statue? Well, that wasn’t a factor for the Oct. 13 commission meeting since the City neglected to include a request to remove it, letting the deadline pass.
But while the state commission has slowed down the process, the City Council is still expected to pursue removal by voting on an ordinance challenging the constitutionality of the statues at its Oct. 3 meeting.
“The constitutional argument being made is that continuing to have those statues and memorials, that’s not allowing African-Americans to enjoy the park in the same manner as whites can,” Memphis City Council member Martavius Jones recently told MLK50.
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