An extensive list of activities designed to commemorate one year since the Memphis City Council voted to remove Confederate statues from city parks curiously lacked mention of a multiracial coalition of residents that agitated city and state officials to do something — anything — to get those monuments honoring Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and President Jefferson Davis off Memphis’ lawn.
While the schism appeared to be between the City of Memphis and the activist group #TakeEmDown901, Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner said Sawyer’s perception of her movement’s erasure is “a misunderstanding.” Taking questions at the statue base where Forrest once stood in Health Sciences Park and where the slaveholding Confederate is still buried with his wife, Turner went on to credit Mayor Jim Strickland, Sawyer, Pastor Earle Fisher, Ph.D, and the #TakeEmDown movement for being key players in the effort to remove the monuments.
At a separate event at the National Civil Rights Museum, Sawyer thanked Turner for being courageous and standing in the gap of the monument controversy, “sacrificing his family’s safety.”
Sawyer tearfully rebuked what she called the “erasure” of the #TakeEmDown901 movement, and a local and national tendency to silence the work and voices of black women in leadership. During these remarks, she was standing next to a panel hosted by Memphis Greenspace on which she had previously been invited to participate: “A hard line was drawn by the City of Memphis’ mayor, and we were not welcome to join in any events which included him.”
Strickland, an invited panelist, was not in the room when Sawyer said this.
She went on to recall the sweltering heat of Aug. 19, 2017 when hundreds of residents protested at the Forrest statue in Health Sciences Park, with several being arrested, and a petition demanding removal, which garnered thousands of signatures.
That day was “a people’s movement, and one of Memphis’ greatest days,” said Sawyer, who was supported by local activists Fisher, Antonio Cathey and Keedran Franklin at the event. “People who don’t understand in a city that’s [majority] black will never understand.”
Cathy Hall, a Memphis resident who supported the removal of the Confederate statues despite her family’s long history of support of and participation in the Confederate army, attended the Memphis Greenspace event, saying, “I don’t have guilt, but I do have a voice.”
During a #TakeEmDown901-sponsored event at Memphis Theological Seminary, local students read the names of enslaved people sold by Forrest. Marcellus Richardson, 45, whose daughter Brianna, 16, read a poem she wrote, said he breathed a sigh of relief when the statue came down and couldn’t believe it was happening while watching the news.
“African-Americans never get to breath a sigh of relief because every time there is advancement, it just spirals down again,” said Richardson, noting that his history only goes back to his great-great-grandfather who was enslaved because black people were robbed of their history.
How did Memphis accomplish removing the statues when the state historical commission denied the city’s request to do so? Why did it happen now after so many fits and starts to have those statues removed?
Well, for one thing, going into the 50th year commemoration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination here, Memphis faced certain embarrassment having those statues honoring Confederates standing proudly in taxpayer-funded spaces. Commemorative events drew throngs, including civil rights and social justice luminaries like the Dr. Rev. Bernice King and the King family, the Rev. James Lawson, Bree Newsome, Marian Wright Edelman, former U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Outwardly during 2017, #TakeEmDown901 applied unrelenting pressure through marches, messaging and attending meetings by the city and state historical commission. On Aug. 19, the movement peaked during a peaceful protest at Health Sciences Park on day marked by scorching heat. While Strickland is on record saying he didn’t believe the statues could be moved, at some point city officials worked behind the scenes to determine legal maneuvers to remove them in spite of recent state law leaving those matters up to the historical commission, which wouldn’t budge. They settled on selling two downtown parks featuring Forrest and Jefferson to Memphis Greenspace, which allowed the nonprofit to remove the monuments.
Today, years after the Civil War that freed enslaved blacks, a sort of cold war lives on. The Forrest family recently filed suit against Memphis Greenspace and the City of Memphis seeking the return of the Forrest statue, according to media reports. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is seeking $30.6 million to settle a lawsuit against the City of Memphis and Memphis Greenspace for monument removal, and has sued the City of Memphis for desecrating the Forrest family grave, according to Fox13 Memphis.
Turner said Memphis Greenspace is waiting to see what happens, and if the court decides to return Forrest to his pedestal, the nonprofit organization will appeal.
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.