As states shed Confederate symbols, Tennessee resisted. Gov. Lee may have just changed that
Natalie Allison, Nashville Tennessean Published 2:02 p.m. CT July 1, 2020 | Updated 2:52 p.m. CT July 1, 2020 As Confederate symbols and statues have come down around the South at an unprecedented rate in the past month, Tennessee’s own controversial bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest has remained firmly situated, roped off from the reach of the public inside the state Capitol.
While legislators in Mississippi voted overwhelmingly Sunday to change the state flag, which features a Confederate battle flag, the Tennessee legislature’s Republican majority in recent weeks rebuffed bipartisan attempts to move the bust of Forrest, who was an early Ku Klux Klan leader and a slave trader.
But the will of Gov. Bill Lee — whose position on the bust has evolved significantly in a year and a half, from initially opposing removal to now appearing to maneuver behind the scenes to facilitate it — may prevail.
A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is on display in the Tennessee state Capitol on June 11, 2020. (Photo: Shelley Mays/The Tennessean )
Lee on Wednesday called for a meeting next week of the State Capitol Commission, the 12-member group with authority to determine, with buy-in from the Tennessee Historical Commission, whether the bust can go.
The commission is set to meet in person at 9 a.m. July 9, though members who need to attend electronically will be permitted to do so, according to Lee’s office. While no meeting agenda has been released, the commission is expected to vote on the bust.
The governor’s call for a meeting of the commission to vote on removal is a rapid development in a fight that has lingered for decades, since the bust was first installed outside the House and Senate chambers in 1978.
Most proponents for taking down the bust have suggested it be relocated to the Tennessee State Museum, where there is currently a display on Forrest.
While Confederate symbols have come down elsewhere, Tennessee legislature has resisted
Tennessee legislators’ refusal to take action on the bust in recent weeks stands in contrast to decisions by government entities in other states — even those seen as more conservative than the Volunteer State — to bring down controversial statues and symbolism.
Besides Mississippi’s actions over the weekend, municipalities in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia have removed Confederate monuments in the last month as the North Carolina governor ordered the removal of Confederate statues from Capitol grounds.
Get the The 9:01 newsletter in your inbox.
Morning column that offers both commentary and news on the top stories in Memphis.
Delivery: Mon – Fri
While lawmakers from both parties made emotional appeals for unity during legislative proceedings last month, Tennessee saw no notable shift among the Republican-controlled General Assembly when it came to sentiments on removing the Forrest bust.
Rather, Republican lawmakers not only killed multiple legislative efforts to take down the bust, but approved a bill that gives them more representation on the State Capitol Commission if it becomes law. That legislation was widely seen as an attempt to offset Lee’s efforts to stack the commision with appointees who would vote in favor of removing the controversial statue.
But by holding a meeting before the House and Senate speakers can each appoint an additional private citizen to the commission, Lee is effectively preempting the legislature’s plan.
While Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, have not publicly said who they intended to appoint to the commission, their appointments could have affected the outcome of the vote and prevented removal.
McNally quickly responded Wednesday to the announcement of the meeting, reiterating in a statement that he believes Forrest was "a problematic figure," but that the state should merely add historical context next to the bust.
"The left-wing activists who are pushing an anti-American, anti-history agenda here in Tennessee and across the nation will not stop with Nathan Bedford Forrest," McNally said. "They have made clear Forrest is merely the tip of the iceberg. They mean ultimately to uproot and discard not just Southern symbols, but American heroes and history as well."
His spokesman, Adam Kleinheider, said McNally "would prefer to have the additional legislative appointees in place before any meetings are held or any binding votes are taken, but that is ultimately at the discretion of the chairman of the commission."
Also on Wednesday, the governor announced he is renewing the appointment to the Capitol Commission of Howard Gentry, Nashville’s criminal court clerk who is one of three private citizens on the board.
In addition to Gentry, who was initially appointed before Lee took office but whose term ended June 30, Lee placed two other Black men on the Capitol Commission to serve as private citizens.
It’s unclear who will immediately fill the vacancy of an ex-officio position representing the Tennessee Historical Commission, which was held by THC Chair Reavis Mitchell until his death last month. The historical commission had planned to meet July 10 to approve Mitchell’s replacement as chair.
If approved, bust removal would still be long process
If the Capitol Commission does approve removal, a monthslong process lies ahead with the historical commission, meaning the bust may not actually be able to be relocated until next year.
But Lee on July 13 will no longer have to proclaim an annual special observance of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, something state law has long required of governors. Lee last year faced national attention and wide criticism for signing the day into law and at the time declining to say whether he believed the statute should be changed.
The governor soon after vowed to work to undo the law that required him to proclaim the day, something the legislature did in June before adjourning.
The governor two weeks ago made his strongest comments to date on the bust removal, declaring that "symbols matter" and statues are a "window into what we value," though coming short of explicitly calling for removal.
Lee just before taking office maintained that he was against removing Confederate monuments, though later announced he was in favor of adding historical context next to the bust.