The absurdity of Memphis’ Confederate monuments met its dramatic equal Friday outside Fed Ex Forum when the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard made an entrance on his steed.

Into a waiting throng strode slave trader and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, played by Joe Fennell, who was one of seven people arrested at an August demonstration near Forrest’s equestrian statue. Clutching his fuzzy brown horse, Forrest (Fennell) ranted about buying and selling black people.

In the role of slave trader and Klansman Nathan Bedford Forrest was Joe Fennell at Friday’s #TakeEmDown901 demonstration outside the FedEx Forum in downtown Memphis. Photo by Audrey May

Around him stood more than 75 demonstrators, most wearing all black, in support of the grassroots #TakeEmDown901 movement. Led by Tami Sawyer, the campaign ignited the city’s most recent push to rid the majority black city of monuments that glorify arguably the most shameful period of American history.

The theatrics came just hours after the City of Memphis’ latest attempts to remove Forrest’s statue were rebuffed by the state historical commission at its meeting in East Tennessee. (Read more about the meeting and the commission’s decision here.)

Sawyer, who made the seven-hour drive to Athens, Tennessee to speak before the commission Friday morning, had predicted that the 29-member commission wouldn’t grant the city’s request — and she was right. Friday evening, she called again for the mayor to remove the monuments immediately.

As Forrest bellowed into the megaphone, fans headed to the Memphis Grizzlies game against the New Orleans Pelicans looked on, many with puzzled looks. Forrest was covered by a black cloth, just as has been suggested by activists and the Memphis City Council’s attorney.

After his tirade, Forrest disappeared under a black cloth as Tami Sawyer, the architect of the #TakeEmDown901 movement, spoke to the crowd gathered. Behind the demonstrators were several law enforcement officers. Photo by Darrell Cobbins

More than 20 uniformed officers, including several Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies clad in Army green, milled around the plaza outside FedEx Forum, far more than are typically present for a Grizzlies game. Head coach David Fizdale has been outspoken in his call for the monuments removal, and Sawyer thanked him for his support.

The drama ended when dozens of demonstrators fell to the ground and stayed there for just a few moments, as silent as statues.

Watch MLK50’s video of the entire theatrical demonstration here.

YouTube video

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.