Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer speaks with media while George Johnson shouts obscenities and threats at her as work continues to disassemble a monument and exhume the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest from Health Sciences Park in Memphis for relocation to a museum in Columbia, Tennessee. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Update: On Friday, an arrest warrant was issued for George Johnson, the man caught on video harassing Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, according to a spokesperson for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Johnson, of Byhalia, Mississippi, is being charged with assault.

Juneteenth in Memphis this month will celebrate freedom from slavery and from a memorial to an enslaver on the very ground where the monument to a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader once stood, and work continues to exhume his remains.

The annual celebration will be held June 18 and 19 at Health Sciences Park in the Medical Center, after previously being held at Robert R. Church Park. A large statue that featured Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest on horseback was removed in 2017 after a grassroots, Black-led campaign, and on Tuesday, workers began removing the pedestal and the graves of Forrest and his wife that were beneath it.

Talisa Franklin, president of the Memphis Juneteenth Festival, said the organization wants to “move forward to the healing. And I thought this year would be a perfect year to start the healing of the pain that many people feel when they come to Health Sciences Park, formerly known as Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. This is our beginning. … This will be the first year for a festival to take place of this magnitude in this park, and this can literally start conversations of change in our community.”

The change has not come without tension and threats of violence, however; one of Forrest’s supporters heckled and harangued Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who held a press conference at the park Tuesday. 

Forrest’s removal isn’t expected to be completed before the event, but Franklin said the celebration would continue with proper barriers and security.

Franklin not only wants the festival to be fun but also for people to know why they’re celebrating.

“So many times, we see African Americans celebrate other people’s culture more than they celebrate Juneteenth,” Franklin said. “You see, people celebrate the Fourth of July, (and) have no clue that Fourth of July was this (country’s) independence, but our independence day became June 19, 1865.”

Juneteenth commemorates the day federal troops announced in Galveston, Texas, that the more than 250,000 slaves in the state were free. The Emancipation Proclamation was ratified in 1863 but had not been enforced in Texas, which was still under Confederate control. 

A commissioner threatened

Debris is piled on a portion of a “Black Lives Matter” painting as work continues to disassemble a monument and exhume the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest from Health Sciences Park in Memphis. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

On Wednesday afternoon, passersby dressed in scrubs stared at a crane gently lifting a section of the Tennessee marble base from a mess of bricks that was once a pedestal for Forrest’s equestrian statue. Lee Millar, spokesman for Sons of Confederate Veterans, kept watch on the progress.

Millar’s phone rang with an orchestral arrangement of “Dixie.” He shoved the phone — wrapped in a Confederate flag case — into his pocket and stepped to the second ring of fencing. The extra protection was added after news cameras aired the angry harassment of Sawyer the day before by a man who Millar said was only a “volunteer” and not part of his group.

Sawyer, a leader of the #TakeEmDown901 movement to topple Confederate statues in Memphis, was in the park Tuesday for a press conference. When she arrived, she removed Confederate flags from the fence around the worksite.

The man, identified by Sawyer as George “K-Rack” Johnson, put bricks over a Black Lives Matter mural, sang “Dixie” and hurled misogynistic curses and threats at Sawyer. 

Since then, she has received other threats of violence through social media and email, but Memphis police have not taken the threats seriously, she said. When she tried to report the threats on Wednesday around 8 p.m., she was told she should call back on Thursday, and on Thursday was told to call a different number to make a complaint, she said.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday afternoon at the police station on North Main Street, Sawyer said Interim Police Director James Ryall had stepped in and promised that the threats were being taken seriously. She also thanked Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner for providing her a security detail.

Sawyer said she hoped to get an order of protection against Johnson and others who made threats and that charges would follow. “You don’t have to like me, but once you start to threaten me, we are in another class of disrespect.”

‘We wanted him gone’ 

The Forrest memorial removal is part of a deal to end litigation between the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Memphis Greenspace, which is led by Shelby County Commissioner, Van Turner, who is also president of the NAACP Memphis Branch. To circumvent state officials’ efforts to block Confederate statue takedowns in 2017, Memphis Greenspace bought the park from the city, after which the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Forrest family sued.

“We wanted him gone, and they wanted him, so the deal was made,” Turner said. “You end the litigation; you get to keep (the statue). Our deal is you can’t have it in Memphis or Shelby County.”

The memorial and the remains are being moved to the National Confederate Museum in Columbia, Tennessee.

Turner described the removal of the memorial and celebration of Juneteenth in its place as biblical.

The Rev. Earle Fisher (left) embraces Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer during a 2017 #takeemdown901 protest against the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“Here you have a celebration of freedom in a park, which once stood for the celebration of those who would deny Black folks freedom,” Turner said. “This is as biblical as it can get. ‘The last shall be made first; the first shall be made last.’ The slave owner is now in the hands of descendants of the slaves he once owned. I think it is symbolic, I think it is powerful, and I think we need to use this moment to push forth effort for equity and equality for all.”

Although Sawyer felt her greatest closure with the removal of the statue, she sees this as the end of a chapter, making the space more welcoming for Black Memphians.

“That park was just kind of only used by UT folks, eating lunch,” Sawyer said. “Black folks weren’t sitting in that park or using the park for anything unless it was to make a point. Now, to see it be a space that’s going to be utilized and filled with celebration and joy, it’s like removing a ghost from the park and the people of the city, the Black people of the city, reclaiming it for themselves.”

As for the Juneteenth celebration, Sawyer is looking forward to a lively day.

“I hope they wobble all over that park, two-step and pour out libations to the ancestors,” Sawyer said. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to mlk50@mlk50.com.