On Wednesday night, Memphis’ monuments to an ignoble time fell, as construction crews dismantled and carted away the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues.
And while the action, made possible by a Memphis City Council vote just hours before, may have seemed hasty to the public, it had been in the works since summer.
That’s when Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner approached the city of Memphis with a proposal: Transfer the parks to a nonprofit entity, which then could do with the Confederate monuments as it wished.
The nonprofit entity would be Memphis Greenspace, which has applied for 501©3 status.
Under dreary skies Thursday morning, four of Memphis Greenspace’s five board members stood feet from the denuded Forrest monument, in what used to be Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. “It was just time to do the right thing,” said Turner, who was the only board member to speak at the press conference.
“We envision the transfer of other parks to the nonprofit,” Turner said. “This is only the beginning.”
Memphis Greenspace has an account at SunTrust bank to receive donations to cover the inevitable and anticipated legal expenses, said Turner, a practicing attorney. As he spoke, Lee Millar of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans stood in the crowd, his phone snug in a Confederate flag case. The group believes the council’s vote was illegal and plans to sue.
For nearly four months, the City of Memphis has guarded the statues with 24-hour police protection. And while the City of Memphis did not pay for the removal of the monuments, the expenses connected to their removal continue, at least tangentially. The Memphis Greenspace board of directors has police protection and received a briefing on what to look out for, Turner told MLK50.
The precaution is warranted. In other cities that relieved themselves of such monuments, construction crews that removed the statues were bombarded with death threats.
This solution to a decades-old dilemma wasn’t new. In August, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center offered to assume control of Health Sciences Park where Forrest’s statue stood and Memphis Park, where Davis’ statue stood.
And in 2005, then-Mayor Willie Herenton proposed giving Forrest Park to the University of Tennessee medical center and Confederate and Jefferson Davis parks to the nonprofit Riverfront Development Commission. (A week later, according to The Memphis Flyer, Herenton reversed himself, saying the city should maintain control of the parks.)
That year was just one period in Memphis history resistance to the Confederate monuments peaked, led by Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who is again a commissioner, and his brother, the late judge and civil rights activist D’Army Bailey.
But as the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death loomed near, so grew the dissonance between the way the city wants to be seen and the way it is.
Memphis is a city desperate to shed its identity as the place that killed King, who came to support sanitation workers seeking higher wages. It is a city that still held in places of honor Forrest, a slaver and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and Davis, the first president of the Confederacy, dedicated to preserving the institution of slavery. It is a largely segregated city, saddled with the highest child poverty rate in the nation and an economy built on low-wage industries.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland promised to have the monuments down before April 4, 2018, but all of his attempts to persuade the Tennessee Historical Commission to allow the city to move the monuments — including flying on a private plane to the commission’s October meeting to plead his case — failed.
As across the country, Confederate monuments fell, the persistence of Forrest and Davis in a city that is 63 percent black grated on a growing activist movement that King would align himself with, were he alive.
Tami Sawyer, who is black, launched the TakeEmDown901 movement, which held its first meeting in June and in just a few weeks, collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition to remove the monuments.
At Thursday’s press conference, Turner name-checked her and Pastor Earle Fisher of Abyssinian Baptist Church, who was also at the forefront of the movement’s efforts.
“When you look at the polling in this great city, all the polling suggests that they (citizens) want this issue behind us,” Turner said. “I think it is time for Memphis to move forward.”
Turner continued: “Next year is MLK50. Dr. King came to this city, he lost his life in this city fighting for equality, fighting for the right of all citizens and he met his end here…. I think it’s appropriate at this time for Memphis to move forward, to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy and passing and this is only one thing we can do.
“We still have poverty issues in this city… We still got to educate our kids, we still got to resolve these crime problems. We do not need to be focused on this any longer,” he said. “It’s time to move forward, it’s time to move the city forward and I think this will help do so.”
The Sons of the Confederate Veterans opposed the renaming of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park in 2013 and is “disappointed” by Wednesday’s council decision, Millar said.
He believes the city broke the state law prohibiting the desecration of graves, including any disturbance within 10 feet of graves.
The bodies of Forrest and his wife rest several feet below the plaza, which is at least two feet high. Above the plaza is the statue’s stone base, which is at least seven feet high. The equestrian statue, removed Wednesday night, was at least six feet high. Millar said the plaza is considered part of the grave.
Millar, however, is not an attorney. Nashville attorney Doug Jones represents the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.
Four attorneys sit on Memphis Greenspace’s five-member board: Leigh Chiles, Andrew DeShazo, Luther Mercer and Turner, who said the team considered all of the legal implications connected with the gravesite, Turner said.
When the council renamed Forrest and Confederate parks in 2013, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Memphis to protest the decision. Millar said he hasn’t heard of any plans for similar protests and that the Sons of the Confederate Veterans won’t be protesting, either.
“We’ve got nothing to do with the Klan,” he said. “We’re the gentlemen in the fight.”
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