Today, Memphis will remember. Of the hard truths and tragic events that mark this city’s psyche—such as being the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when he was only here to help—the symbolic persistence of Confederate symbols in taxpayer-funded parks is a shared memory. And for many Memphians, their removal by the Memphis City Council at 9:01 p.m. Dec. 20, 2017 is an accomplishment some can, and will, celebrate.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism will cover commemorative events today, including: a #TakeEmDown901 remembrance of enslaved people sold by Forrest, held at Memphis Theological Seminary and a Memphis Greenspace candlelight vigil at Health Sciences Park. We invite you to reflect on our coverage from a year ago to understand how city officials were able to circumvent state law and heed citizens’ demands that statues of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis be removed from public parks in this, a majority-black city whose forebears were on the losing side of the slave economy.
The Memphis City Council unanimously voted today to approve an ordinance for the immediate removal of both Nathan Bedford Forest and Jefferson Davis monuments from public parks. After the third and final of the ordinance and the subsequent vote, council then moved to immediately accept the meetings minutes, thereby sealing the vote.
Moments after the council vote, MLK50’s Kirstin L. Cheers reported seeing a sea of police cars descend upon Union Avenue, surrounding Health Sciences Park. Scores of onlookers waited with excitement as day turned to night and a thick fog set in. The statue came down just after 9 p.m. after crews worked diligently to secure the hulking structure to safely move it from its base and out of the park.
The camaraderie was palpable, as residents of all persuasions — African-Americans, Asian-Americans, whites, Middle-Easterners — waited patiently as police kept order while workers worked. Many onlookers walked up to #TakeEmDown901 creator Tami Sawyer to meet her and thank her. She cried quite a bit. Several Memphis police officers could be spied with smiles on their faces; there seemed to be a feeling of relief in the air.
Several local elected officials came to Forrest statue removal, including Shelby County Commissioners Walter L. Bailey Jr. (8th) and Reginald Milton (19th), State Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-91st). City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd, also on the scene, told local news the movement to take down the statues was a collaborative effort, angering some in the crowd who wanted Sawyer to get her due for never letting up on calls to immediately remove the monuments. They shouted, “Tami, Tami, Tami!”
Social media responses were a mixed bag, with several posters on Facebook and Twitter thanking Sawyer, #TakeEmDown901, the City Council, Mayor Jim Strickland, and even former Memphis Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale, who spoke out against the symbols in August at great professional risk, telling MLK50 Founder Wendi C. Thomas: “Fifty years later [Martin Luther King Jr.] is speaking to us from the grave and telling us to stand up to this crap that we’re seeing, that’s festering in our country, that our president has seemed to deem OK,” Fizdale said.
On the flip side of the celebration, the WREG News Channel 3 live Facebook feed was buried under a deluge of complaints about the station’s decision to cut into the season finale of “Survivor” in favor of airing a historic moment. In fact, Memphis has joined several other cities, including Dallas, Austin (University of Texas) and New Orleans, in removing Confederate symbols, many of which weren’t even installed until decades after the Civil War, disqualifying them from war memorial status.
At its meeting Wednesday afternoon, the Memphis City Council transferred ownership of the city’s two Confederate monuments to a nonprofit created specifically for that purpose. The nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace, was formed to serve “as an independent, nonprofit that provides park-based recreation within the City of Memphis to start, strengthen and support neighborhood and community involvement.”
The transfer was effective immediately and within an hour, Memphis police were blocking off Union Avenue, where the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue stands in Health Sciences Park, and Front Street, where Jefferson Davis’ statue stands in Memphis Par.
At the Forrest monument, huge construction trucks stood ready, with the company logo on the truck’s door obscured. Mounted police officers patrolled the monument.
The council’s move did what Mayor Jim Strickland promised to do but did or could not: Remove the statues before the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4.
The monuments to Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, and Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s first president, have long grated on many residents in a predominantly black city.
Over the years, efforts to remove the statues came and went. The most recent movement to remove the monuments was led by local activist Tami Sawyer, who spearheaded the #TakeEmDown901 effort that began in May.
“These are monuments to symbols of racism and hatred and nothing more,” Sawyer wrote in a June guest editorial for MLK50. In August, David Fizdale, then coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, called for the city to “take ’em down (the monuments). I don’t know what the hesitation is, I don’t know what we’re waiting on. . . Whatever gets those things down immediately, we got to do it. It splits people apart.”
Strickland, by profession an attorney, insisted on petitioning the state historical commission to grant a waiver to a state law that prohibits municipal governments from removing the Forrest and Davis monuments. But at the commission’s October meeting in East Tennessee, the body voted to delay any decision until its February meeting.
For more than three months, the City of Memphis has posted police vehicles to guard the statue, at an estimated cost of more than $13,000 per day, according to calculations by #TakeEmDown901 organizers.
On Wednesday evening, as news crews gathered near the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue, Sawyer was cautiously optimistic.
“The role of organizers and activists in making change in Memphis should never be diminished,” she said in a text message before the removal began.
“For the majority of the year, we have brought together thousands of Memphians to push for removal of these Confederate statues from public property in an effort to make Memphis a bit more equitable. We’ve withstood hate, physical threats, arrests and more to stand for the fact that these symbols of hate should no longer stand in a venerated state.
“Our mayor once said that he didn’t feel anything could be done about the statues, but the will of the people pushed the city to find a way. I am proud of #takeemdown901 and all the people and orgs who stood with us. This doesn’t end our collective fight for equality and equity in Memphis but it shows that we have the ability and the will to make changes for a Memphis in which we can all feel safe, free and equal.”
This story 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. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.