Don’t get it twisted, fighting for justice isn’t sexy. That was one key takeaway #TakeEmDown901’s Tami Sawyer had Friday after joining Mayor Jim Strickland, Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan, clergy and others at the Tennessee Historical Commission meeting in Athens seeking to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in downtown Memphis.
“There’s nothing sexy about driving seven hours in one direction and seven hours in another at a time in the country when it’s not safe for black folks to be on the road,” said a visibly exhausted Sawyer in a Facebook post as she evoked the specter of the late Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and other blacks subject to American-style occupation but not its justice.
As Sawyer and three activists headed back home for a 5:30 p.m. die-in being staged at FedEx Forum in a sustained, unrelenting week of protest and action, she continued: “To be greeted with a Confederate flag when you arrive … I need folks to know we put our lives on the line for this stuff.”
That flag, held by a black man dressed in a gray Confederate uniform, and remarks by Lee Millar, a spokesman for the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, was a living metaphor of the “unconscious influence” of white supremacy mentioned in Strickland’s remarks to the 29-member commission as he entreated them to bend to the will of Memphians. He promised that the tribute to the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan would be carefully stored until a more appropriate place was found to contextualize its meaning, and local decision-making on local issues should be honored.
Despite Strickland’s assurance that 177 clergy members, the congregations they represent and Memphis’ business community want the statue to go, the commission denied the City of Memphis’ request to move forward with a hearing on a waiver from a state law that would allow removal.
But there’s still a chance the commission could allow Memphis to move the statue: They did approve another request for a declaratory order that must, by law, be decided in 60 days. The difference this time is the process won’t be open to the public, according to Sawyer.
“The one that was approved pushes the issue before an administrative law judge,” according to Ursula Madden, the mayor’s spokeswoman. “And the city expects an answer before the end of November. In that petition for declaratory judgment, the city argument is that THC never had jurisdiction over the Forrest statue because it is not a war memorial.”
What the statue was/is really about
Strickland stressed that the Forrest statue is not a war memorial because it wasn’t erected until 40 years after the Civil War ended, as were many of the 1,500 government-backed Confederate tributes across the country. Writer Joanna Rothkopf describes the statues as “mass produced propaganda.” White residents in 1905 were clear on what the statue symbolized as the mayor described in an excerpt from a Memphis News-Scimitar newspaper article on the unveiling:
Strickland said: “Let me just read you a quote: ‘Stalwart, strong and invincible, he sits erect on King Philip, overlooking Forrest Park and turning his eagle eye toward the South, just as he was wont to do 40 years ago when the chaotic conditions of life required the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan for the protection of the honor and independence of Southern social conditions.’
“What were those Southern social conditions?” Strickland asked. “They were Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation. These laws were being passed in Southern states, including Tennessee.”
This entire administrative law process should be finished by the end of November. pic.twitter.com/NMbluOIGct
— Mayor Jim Strickland (@MayorMemphis) October 13, 2017
Millar, the Confederate spokesman, insisted Memphis is not united on this issue, according to a Memphis Flyer report. And history teacher Elizabeth Adams somehow conflated white supremacy with Christianity by saying: “If you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it. Next they’ll want to remove the crosses from our churches.”
Dedicated to following the letter of the law, Strickland remained upbeat in a statement issued after the commission meeting: “After so many years of so many Memphians fighting for this, this is a positive step. The petition will now be heard before an administrative law judge, and we expect this matter to be successfully resolved by the end of November. Our goal of removing the statues by next spring remains.”
As for #TakeEmDown901 and the more than 5,000 signatures the movement has gathered demanding immediate removal of both Forrest and a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Sawyer said: “We’re going to let our city know that regardless of what the Tennessee Historical Commission said, we want swift action; we want bold leadership; we want them covered. We want them down.”
UPDATE: At Friday’s meeting, the Tennessee State Historical Commission delayed a vote on granting the City of Memphis a waiver to the state law that prohibits the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Confederate monument.
This story was updated. The original story as published Thursday, Oct. 12, is below.
Mayor Jim Strickland, clergy members and #TakeEmDown901 activists are headed to Friday’s meeting of the Tennessee Historical Commission with a request for the 29-member body: Please reconsider.
The commission has said it’s too soon rule on the city’s request to take down Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statute that stands downtown in Health Sciences Park. First, the commission wants to craft the rules that would govern waivers to the state law that prohibits the removal of war memorials from public spaces.
The commission’s delay will push the waiver request until the next meeting in February — at the earliest. But that isn’t stopping the growing movement to rid the city of Forrest’s equestrian statue.
Strickland, “like a vast majority of Memphians, wants the statue removed,” according to Ursula Madden, the mayor’s spokeswoman.
“We are hopeful that a majority of the commission members themselves support our petition and are equally 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 wearing seeing in our city in support of our petition,” Strickland said in a Sept. 28 statement.
The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce drafted a letter, making it clear the local business community stands behind efforts to relocate the statue from public property because it’s good for business: “Divisive symbols, such as this statue, hamper our city’s efforts to attract and retain top talent for the skilled workforce that is critical to our success. As leaders representing the business community we believe that learning from history is incredibly important because history — when placed in its proper context — is instructive to prevent repeating mistakes from our past.”
More than a dozen of the 177 clergy members who signed the mayor’s petition seeking removal will attend, Madden said. Also presenting will be Tami Sawyer, founder of the #TakeEmDown901 movement, which has succeeded in collecting more than 5,000 signatures to remove the statute of the former slave trader. #TakeEmDown901 also mounted a large protest at the edifice in August that also functions as the grave of Forrest and his wife Mary Ann.
During a press conference Wednesday, several local clergy members who signed the mayor’s petition joined #TakeEmDown901’s calls for more aggressive campaign to remove Forrest’s statue. The group also launched a call-in campaign this week in hopes the commission would grasp just how many Memphians would like the statue removed. And #TakeEmDown901 will also live-stream the meeting, posting to the Sawyer’s Facebook page.
“Our history should be the true history of all Southerners, not Southerners of a certain race,” Sawyer told MLK50. “Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest were slave owners, brutal slave owners, who believed black people were not equal, and these statues do not show that historical truth. They are called true Southern gentlemen and patriots, which is not accurate.”
Memphis-based commission member Beverly Robertson, formerly the executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum, has indicated many of her fellow board members are wedded to romantic notions of Civil War history, as are many defenders of the 1,500 or so government-backed tributes across the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many Tennessee residents are avid Civil War re-enactors, Robertson said.
However, many people who celebrate the Confederacy fail to understand how the psychic damage of having a statue lauding a man who built his fortune on black bodies and sought to keep them enslaved hurts African-American residents and those committed to social justice, she said.
The city’s other Confederate statue, Jefferson Davis, is not a part of this round of discussions because the city missed a deadline seeking a waiver to get rid of that one.
Why not take them down and deal with consequences later?
During a recent forum hosted by the Black Law Students Association at the University of Memphis School of Law, Bruce McMullen, the city’s chief legal officer, emphasized the City’s determination to stay on the legal straight and narrow, regardless of how slow the process may be.
Sawyer, however, pinged McMullen for the city’s lack of aggressiveness on removing a monument so clearly an insult to African-American residents and an icon to the structural inequalities that plague local minority and impoverished residents till this day.
All this begs the question: What’s keeping Strickland from yanking down both of Memphis’ Confederate statues as #TakeEmDown901 activists have suggested, demanded even?
As is the case with any legal issue, it’s complicated.
Those complications involve possible jail for Strickland or an injunction filed by the state attorney general’s office to thwart actual removal, according to Demetria Frank, University of Memphis law professor. Memphis also faces a loss of grace in the capitol as the majority-black city is not like the rest of the state, demographically speaking, she said.
“The fear would be if you take it down, some kind of injunction would happen prior to taking it down,” Frank said. If a court “issued some kind of injunction, then whoever gives the order would be in violation of a court order, then he would risk as a public official going to jail. It’s kind of the most extreme thing that could happen. Then you’d have a legal battle.”
A better route, according to Frank would be to have an individual citizen file a lawsuit using language similar to a City Council resolution that describes the presence of the Forrest statue in a public park as a loss of enjoyment for certain community members, namely black citizens who are descendants of the very people the Confederate general fought to keep enslaved. The idea would be not all citizens don’t have “true access” to Health Sciences Park because it’s not a space meant for African-Americans and constitutes a public service or resource that not all people feel comfortable using. Frank compared this situation to a case where a lake has toxic substances that precludes the public from using or enjoying it.
The council, on Oct. 3, delayed going forward with an ordinance to remove the Forrest statue on “loss of enjoyment” grounds, choosing to see what happens at the historical commission meeting first, WREG reported. Staying within legal parameters while moving with due haste is a concern, according to Council Chairman Berlin Boyd.
The gist of the City Council’s rationale is: “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 told MLK50.
In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s public accommodation rules could likely be added to such an individual lawsuit, and the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal protection clause could be invoked in this case, too, explained Frank, who said a federal judge would likely decide the grounds on which such a suit could move forward. Well-known equal protection cases include Brown v. Board of Education, involving racial discrimination and Roe v. Wade, addressing reproductive rights.
In Memphis’ case, such a lawsuit wouldn’t likely be filed in state court because of an obvious conflict of interest between state law and the wishes of many residents and the Strickland administration and the City Council.
This issue of celebrating the so-called Lost Cause is being debated across the country, and hit a violent point in August when white supremacists flocked to Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a local park. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal died after police say a car driven by James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio drove through a crowd of counterprotesters. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters toppled a Confederate statue in front of the Durham County Courthouse in August, and vandals decapitated a Confederate statue at Camp Chase National Cemetery in Columbus.
Now, it’s true the City of Dallas took down a Robert E. Lee statue in August, though city council offices have been inundated with criticism of that decision since then, reports the Dallas Morning News. And the Dallas City Council is slated to vote on removal of a Confederate War Memorial near City Hall. But Frank, who originally hails from Houston, said not only is Texas different, but Dallas certainly is.
“They don’t mind being a little brash and less careful,” Frank said. They can still win politically later. The way these issues are playing out in the deeper South is different.
You’ve got big places like Dallas that can start the domino effect, whereas in Tennessee you don’t have that.”
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