As thousands of Memphians stared at their TVs waiting what seemed like eternity for Nathan Bedford Forrest and his horse to go airborne (it turned out the city was being cute and stalling it until exactly 9:01 p.m.), News Channel 3 issued an apology: “We understand that some of you are upset that you are missing the Survivor finale.”
Viewers were assured the finale would air at 1:07 a.m. They could record it.
For months — years — it felt like the monuments of Forrest and Jefferson Davis were never going to go anywhere, and now all of a sudden they’re gone. And many Memphians no doubt hope this means the matter is behind us and we can now return to our normal programming.
Indeed, a News Channel 3 reporter seemed taken aback when she interviewed Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church and #TakeEmDown901 activist, and he wasn’t content to just rest on his laurels.
Instead he complained the grassroots movement’s leader Tami Sawyer wasn’t being given due credit, as usually happens when black women get stuff done. And moreover, while he was happy to see the monuments go, there was work to be done so long as there was injustice. So he and his fellow activists intended to keep fighting for jobs, living wages, and equitable schooling.
#TakeEmDown901 was never about whether Nathan Bedford Forrest or Jefferson Davis were bad men. It was about whether Memphis would be a free, just, and equitable place for all its citizens. As long as the monuments were there, Memphis could not be such a place. And now that the monuments are gone, Memphis may yet be such a place.
The message of the monuments
When white folks erected the Forrest and Davis monuments, their message was clear: that Memphis was a city first and foremost for its white citizens. In 1905 white Memphians turned to Nathan Bedford Forrest for the same reason they turned to Jim Crow and Judge Lynch — to push back against the growing power of the black populace, especially its political and economic elite. Whites needed to see, as a journalist for the Memphis News-Sentinel wrote, “the great leader of this secret clan” riding his horse “once more” and “calling his own to follow him again.”
And in 1964 white Memphians turned to Jefferson Davis for the same reason they turned to Massive Resistance and Segregation Forever — to push back against the clamor for equality and freedom from the city’s darker-skinned majority. When the statue was unveiled, the people gathered there hooted and hollered so proudly that the Commercial Appeal wrote that, for an hour, “Confederate Park was no place for Yankees.” They could have easily replaced Yankees with another word.
If few white Memphians understood the monuments to have an explicitly racist meaning, then the monuments were working. The emotional labor of white supremacy is supposed to be the burden of people of color — otherwise, what would be the point? My father, who lived in the Lauderdale Courts in the 1940s and ’50s and often played baseball at Forrest Park, didn’t think much at all of the statue. But the statue’s message was not for him.
The message was for Echol Cole and Robert Walker, the black sanitation workers crushed to death in a garbage picker. The message was for Larry Payne, shot in the gut two months later by a cop who thought he’d stolen a TV.
The message was for folks like the young man who, at #TakeEmDown901’s first public meeting in June, asked, “How they gonna put a racist statue right in the middle of where the black people are?” The message was for the woman who at that same meeting remembered how painful it was to tell her daughter that Davis and Forrest were men “she was supposed to look up to.” The message was for Tami Sawyer, who said her nieces “should be able to run through the parks free — free black girls.”
And the point of the monuments was that black girls could not run free — not just in Forrest Park or Confederate Park, but anywhere in Memphis. This was a city that used federal money for “slum clearance” to raze middle-class black neighborhoods. This was a city that forced black people into high-density public housing to prevent them from encroaching onto white neighborhoods. This is a city that has spent federal block grants on downtown boondoggles like Peabody Place and the Bass ProShops Pyramid rather than, say, local businesses in Orange Mound or Whitehaven.
This is a metropolitan area that prevents black people from living where the jobs are — where white suburbs will secede from a majority-black school district even if it costs them a ton of money — where ICE agents bang on doors, demand to see papers, and separate parents from their children, just as did their fugitive-slave-catching predecessors. This is a city that, despite its cheerful campaign to squeeze as many tourist dollars as it can out of the upcoming semicentennial, killed Echol Cole and Robert Walker and Larry Payne and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom were pronounced dead at John Gaston Hospital, just a minute’s stroll from the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial.
Time for inequality in the city to fall too
Critics of #TakeEmDown901 charged the movement was obsessed with a couple of monuments at the expense of more pressing issues. But those who came to the rallies understood that though the monuments weren’t merely symbolic — they were a real, material impediment to black people being able to enjoy equal use of public parks — they were indeed emblematic of a larger problem, one that wouldn’t just go away once we took ’em down.
And so #TakeEmDown901 activists called for more public bus routes — “Why is it you can’t take a bus to FedEx?” They called for a $15 minimum wage. They called on the city to contract with more black businesses and urged folks to buy black and buy Latinx. They called on the county sheriff’s office to stop cooperating with ICE. They called, in short, for a city where all boys and girls could run free.
I confess there were times I thought #TakeEmDown901 was being unnecessarily antagonistic towards the mayor and the city council; I wondered if they were being overly pessimistic about whether a deal could be made with the Tennessee Historical Commission; I feared they were making enemies when they ought to cultivate allies. Last night’s events confirmed what I suspected all along — that I was wrong.
Memphis’s white-supremacist monuments would still be standing if it weren’t for Tami Sawyer and her movement annoying the hell out of the City of Memphis. Yes, Mayor Jim Strickland and the city council did the right thing. But only when #TakeEmDown901 gave them no choice.
The city saw the righteous fury unleashed in August, when hundreds of Memphians — college kids and aging hippies, black and white and Latinx, Free Palestiners and Fight for Fifteeners, Democratic Socialists and collared clergy — all gathered at Health Sciences Park under a pitiless sun. (The next day Tami Sawyer remarked that her sunburnt cheeks and neck memorialized her own “Confederate heritage.”) This was the future of Memphis — angry Trump was president, angry Heather Heyer was dead, angry there were still racist-ass monuments in this beautiful chocolate-mocha city. But sure: arrest a few of them for trying to pull a tarp over the old man. See what good it does.
About a month before the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument was unveiled, a Confederate veteran complained about the sculptor’s decision to have Forrest face south. The sculptor thought this would make for the best lighting, but the old Confederate wasn’t so sure. It seemed ominous for Forrest to face south rather than north.
It looked like Forrest was retreating.
Bill Black is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and historian of religion, culture, and race in America. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamRBlack.
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