The Tennessee Historical Commission has rejected a request from Memphis officials to remove a 112-year-old bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park.
After almost two hours of discussion, the 29 commission members voted down a measure that would have given Memphis a waiver to remove the statue. City officials plan to appeal the decision within 60 days.
“We demand that immediate action is taken. These statues can no longer stand and represent inaccurate history,” Tamera Sawyer with Take Em Down 901, an activist group calling for the monument’s removal, told the Commission during the meeting.
While denying the city’s request, the commission approved another proposal allowing the city to obtain a legal order that could bypass the commission.
The former Confederate general was chosen to be the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867, although he later renounced the group.
Communities across the country have been grappling with whether to remove Confederate statues and symbols following a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. The August protest prompted a number of munipalities across the country to take down Confederate monuments.
But Memphis has been trying to take down the Forrest statute for years – to no avail.
Memphis city council members voted to take it down in August 2015, according to the Memphis Appeal. A year later, state lawmakers tightened preservation rules and required any city that wants to take down or “disturb” a historical military figure obtain a waiver from the Tennessee Historic Commission. The commission then strengthened its powers to give itself the ability to deny a waiver.
But Memphis is trying to fight those rules because it filed a waiver before the state law went into effect, so it believes it should be grandfathered in to the prior rules.
The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a measure that would call for immediate removal, a move that, without state approval, would violate the law, City Attorney Bruce McMullen told the Commercial Appeal.
The Commercial Appeal reports that Council chairman Berlin Boyd said the council will explore all options to remove the statue before MLK50 in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights icon was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, while he was planning a demonstration in Washington, D.C.
“Memphis is a different city than it was 100 years ago and I think some of what the statue tends to perpetuate is the notion of the old South rising again,” former National Civil Rights Museum president Beverly Robertson said after the meeting. "So I don’t think it paints a true picture of the Memphis that we are now.”