As far as the Memphis City Council is concerned, the Tennessee Historical Commission holds the cards on deciding whether to remove the Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park.
But the council Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that would provide a backup plan for removing or relocating the Forrest monument by Nov. 21, the Memphis Flyer reports.
Even though state law forbids the City of Memphis from removing the statue, the city has other options, such as closing the downtown park and using the space to memorialize 22 people who were lynched in Shelby County, Councilman Martavius Jones told MLK50.
The decision followed last week’s historic commission meeting in Athens and the council’s efforts to find legal ways to remove the statue that honors the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who made his fortune trading enslaved blacks.
“It’s a modestly progressive gesture, but it still doesn’t offer the bold and courageous leadership the community is longing for,” said the Rev. Earle Fisher, a #TakeEmDown901 leader, of the council’s latest action.
— Tami Sawyer! 🟩 (@tamisawyer) October 17, 2017
At the Oct. 13 meeting, the 29-member commission denied Mayor Jim Strickland’s (and other Memphians’) in-person request to grant a hearing on a waiver from a 2016 state law that bars removing monuments of historic, national or military significance. The commission did grant permission for a state administrative law judge to decide what happens. That decision is expected sometime in November.
“What we don’t have is a date for the administrative law judge, but as I understand everything is on a fast track,” said Jones, noting the Forrest statue is historically inaccurate because it doesn’t mention Forrest’s connection to slavery or the KKK. “One way to look at it is if we don’t receive fair remedies, those are other avenues we can pursue.”
The ordinance, which seeks the ultimate removal of both Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, deems them a “public nuisance” that infringes upon the civil rights of black Memphis residents because they erected during the Jim Crow era.
In addition to the 22 people documented as lynching victims in Shelby County, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative has recorded 233 lynchings in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950. More than 4,000 lynchings were carried out across the country during that time, mostly in the South. The Great Migration to the North from 1916 through 1970 is largely attributed to this reign of terror of black citizens, according EJI’s exhaustive research on the practice.
The move to honor lynching victims echoes the work of notable Memphian and journalist, Ida B. Wells Barnett, born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and freed several months later by the Emancipation Proclamation. In the late 1800’s, Wells Barnett focused her investigative efforts on documenting lynching, including the lynchings of three friends who ran the People’s Grocery in South Memphis, Thomas Moss, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell. In response to her journalism, Wells Barnett’s Memphis newspaper office was burned by a white mob and she was forced to relocate to the North to Chicago, fearing for her life.
Says Fisher: “The entire environment is reminiscent of the rigidity of the ’60s. We must find the political will and creativity to act more aggressively in support of what the majority of citizens want. Take. Them. Down. Now.”
Where do we go from here?
Sign #TakeEmDown901’s petition to remove the Confederate monuments.
Join Memphis’ Lynching Sites Project, which is working to place a marker at all of the county’s lynching site.
Read more about the fight to remove Memphis’ Confederate symbols from public spaces.
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.