OPINION: Elvis and the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust have left Tennessee's Capitol

·4 min read

Jul. 23—Elvis — er, a Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest — has left the building. Tennessee's Capitol building.

Before 10 a.m. Friday, the 44-inch tall bronze bust of the pre-Civil War slave trader and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was gone from its 43-year perch of dishonor just outside the Senate and House chambers on the Capitol's second floor.

The historic decision for the bust's removal came Thursday when State Building Commission members voted 5-2 to oust the controversial statue.

Think for a moment about the placement of the bust of that particular man in that particular spot between the Senate and House chamber doors. A spot where it could and has for 43 years stood as a symbolic reminder to Tennessee lawmakers and others who every day of a legislative session might be made, even if only unconsciously, to register the so-called "lost cause" of keeping some of our citizens down in order to let others of our citizens feel better about themselves.

It's long, long past time for this statue to go away.

"The key word that comes to mind is 'finally,' said social activist Justin Jones, who has been vocal for years and even had been arrested trying to make this happen. "This is a step forward. We know the work continues. What that statue represents, ultimately, needs to come down as well."

One of the two Thursday votes against removing the statue was Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who acknowledged that Forrest is a "problematic" figure but went on to jab at those who more fully understand the problem.

"The leftwing activists who are pushing an anti-American, anti-history agenda here in Tennessee and across the nation will not stop with Nathan Bedford Forrest. The woke mob means ultimately to uproot and discard not just Southern symbols, but American heroes and history, as well," he said.

No, Sen. McNally. We're just tired of white supremacists rapturizing about "history." Well, one history, anyway.

Did we mention that Forrest also was the commander of Confederate soldiers massacred about 300 mostly African-America Union soldiers who had surrendered and should instead have been taken as prisoners of war?

The turning point in this statue saga came a year ago this month, when the Tennessee State Capitol Commission, in a last-minute compromise, recommended removing Forrest only if the busts of two U.S. admirals also were moved out.

The other two busts are Admiral David Farragut, who in the Civil War was a flag officer of the U.S. Navy serving the Union, and Navy Admiral Albert Gleaves, who had nothing to do with the Civil War (he was only 7 when that war ended) but did serve in the Spanish-American War. Those statues, along with the bust of Forrest, will be moved to the state museum to be part of a Tennessee military exhibit.

The last-minute amendment to add the other two statues was offered by ex-officio and nonvoting commission member, Comptroller Justin Wilson, and it understandably caused some heartburn among the members most interested in seeing the Forrest bust moved. They and activists worried at the time that it might be a Trojan Horse designed to delay or even derail the move when the question went next to the Tennessee Historical Commission.

As it turned out, Wilson was brokering a compromise to help Gov. Bill Lee, who in July 2020 called for the Forrest bust to be moved. Lee had been less supportive of removal when he ran for governor in 2018. But that began to change after The Tennessean in February 2019 ran a story with a yearbook photo of Lee, then an Auburn University student, wearing a Confederate uniform with other students in period costumes.

There was also a controversy over a law mandating the governor to sign a state proclamation every year declaring July 13 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day." Lee managed to persuade lawmakers to remove the requirement that he sign the proclamation, allowing the day to take effect annually with no signature.

This week, Lee, who is chairman of the building commission but like his predecessors rarely attends the meetings, made a rare appearance. The item came up on the agenda. There were no speeches in favor or against. And then came the 5-2 vote, with only McNally and and House Speaker Cameron Sexton voting no.

Lee then quickly exited the meeting.

Good work, Gov. Lee — no matter what your ultimate motivations were. It's one of the few things we think you've done right.

Better that an empty space — not a bust — remind lawmakers entering their chambers to decide Tennessee policy than a man who made his living brokering in slavery, committed treason against the United States and was vocal about why he did so: "If we ain't fightin' to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin' for?" Forrest said, according to the writings of historian Albert Castel.

History is still history, no matter where these statues land.

And at Tennessee's Capitol, progress is made.

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