Tennessee law is uncompromising when it comes to Confederate monuments and statues: the only way to rename or remove such a monument on public land is by an act of the Legislature or a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission.
But as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination drew near (on April 4), the City of Memphis grew ever more determined to remove the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from city parks.
So the city had an idea: if we can’t change statues on public property, why don’t we change the public property beneath the statues? City Council voted Wednesday to sell the two parks for $1,000 each to a private nonprofit called Memphis Greenspace. Within hours, Memphis Greenspace had removed the statues from the newly private property.
The bit of legislative legerdemain did not go over well among GOP leaders at the capital in Nashvillle, the Tennesseean reported Thursday. And the tactic might not fly in Georgia.
State law here makes it unlawful to remove or conceal from view any publicly owned monument or memorial dedicated to the service of Georgia military personnel past or present.
Buddy Parker, a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta, while noting that he’s not conversant with the Tennessee law, said Memphis’ gambit wouldn’t be legal here.
“If two or more individuals entered into an agreement to do that which the law forbids in Georgia, that’s a conspiracy,” Parker said.
He spoke of the difference between the form and the substance of the move. The form is the transfer of property to a private entity at a price that has no basis in reality. The substance was to accomplish something the city could not legally do.
“The form of the transaction is not in reality what the substance of the transaction is. So the city did what the Legislature has forbidden. Under Georgia’s law, that would be a criminal act,” Parker said.
In Memphis Wednesday night, the Forrest statue was plucked from Health Sciences Park by 8:30 p.m., and the Davis statue was unmoored about 90 minutes later. A crowd at the Jefferson dismantling began singing “Hit the road, Jack,” the New York Times reported.
“History is being made in Memphis tonight,” Mayor Jim Strickland said Wednesday evening. “Within the next few hours, both the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues will no longer stand in our city.”
Republican legislative leaders were angered by the move.
"We are governed by the rule of law here in Tennessee and these actions are a clear infringement of this principle and set a dangerous precedence for our state," said House Majority Leader Glen Casada and House Republican caucus chairman Ryan Williams.
Casada pointed out that the state’s Historical Commission had already turned down Memphis’ request to move the Forrest statue.
Sara Patenaude, a historian who cofounded a group known asHate Free Decatur, is in the front rank of the effort to move an obelisk that honors Confederate war dead from the DeKalb courthouse square. Patenaude said the tactic used in Memphis is not something the Decatur group is likely to embrace. But she also said she understands what motivated leaders in Memphis.
“It reminds me a lot of Baltimore, where they spent two years talking about this, and then the mayor said, ‘It’s time, we need to do something,’” Patenaude said. “When we have a breakdown of the political process in which people’s voices are not being heard, you have what happened in Baltimore, what happened in Durham, what happened in Memphis.”
She talked about conservative state governments assuming greater control over what happens in more liberal city governments, such as Decatur’s.
“This is the backlash to that. If you’re going to take away our liberal control, we’re going to find a way to get around that.”
Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest?
Forrest was a wealthy Memphis slave trader at the outbreak of the Civil War. He outfitted his own unit of the Confederate army and rose to lieutenant general. He is said to have presided over the massacre of black Union troops who had surrendered to his forces at Fort Pillow, near Memphis.
Forrest also was an early founder and “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, although he later renounced his Klan ties. Forrest’s equestrian statue was raised in 1904.
The statue of Davis, president of the Confederacy, went up in 1964.
Among other things, Casada and Williams said they wanted to know whether the city violated sunshine laws by arranging the parks sale, the Tennesseean said.
Reaction to the removal of the statues ranged from angry to celebratory.