The removal of three statues of Confederate leaders from public parks in Memphis, Tennessee, did not violate state law because they were on private property when they were torn down, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle in Nashville said the move by Memphis to bring down the statues of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes from two city parks on Dec. 20 should not be blocked.
"This ruling reaffirms what we've said from the start: Everything was handled in a lawful manner," Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said in a statement.
The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act limits the removal or changing of historical memorials on public property. In December, city leaders used a legal loophole by selling the city parks for $1,000 to a nonprofit, which swiftly removed the monuments under the cover of darkness.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans Nathan Bedford Forrest Camp in Tennessee had sought an injunction to freeze movement of the statues. They asserted that the sale and removal of the statues were unauthorized and "void or voidable" because the statues come under the act.
"The wording of the law, the 2016 Act, does not apply to private property," Lyle wrote. She added that the sale to the nonprofit was not pre-textual and not a "sham."
Cities have tried to remove Confederate monuments following the racially motivated massacre of nine people at a black church in South Carolina and a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Leaders in majority-black Memphis worked for months on finding a way to remove the statues, amid protests and calls from civil rights advocates who said they were monuments to racism and hate. Forrest was a Confederate general, a slave trader and a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
Lawmakers in Tennessee's Republican-dominated Legislature vowed to punish Memphis for removing the monuments. The House voted to withhold $250,000 in funding for Memphis' bicentennial celebration next year.
And, on the last day of the legislative session in April, lawmakers passed a bill making it harder for cities to get around the law. They approved a measure barring cities from selling or transferring property that has historic memorials without permission from the Tennessee Historical Society — or a court.
Greenspace Inc., the nonprofit that bought the parks, has securely stored the statues. Lyle barred Greenspace from selling or relocating the statues until July 27.
The judge wrote that "Greenspace wishes to transfer the Statues to a suitable host where they can be preserved and displayed in the appropriate context." She mentioned Parkers Crossroads, about 110 miles east of Memphis, as a likely location because it was the site of one of Forrest's military successes.
"Forrest performed innovative and unparalleled military feats and tactics which continue to be studied in military instruction," the judge wrote.
Lyle also suggested that the existence of the statues at the two parks was preventing future development.
Entities in the medical district, which includes the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, formed a collaborative to redevelop the district into a multi-purpose commercial and residential center. But the existence of the Forrest statue at Health Sciences park was hurting those efforts, Lyle wrote.
"Health Sciences Park, where the Forrest Statue was located, is an integral part of the plan to make the district more inviting for its employees, future physicians who they are recruiting and for its patient population," Lyle wrote.
The statue of Davis at Memphis Park, which overlooks the Mississippi River, has led "several sponsors to cancel events and substantial donations" related to downtown riverfront development, the judge wrote.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans can appeal. Spokesman Lee Millar said late Wednesday that he has not had chance to read the ruling but that the group "will continue to pursue justice to save and preserve the historic memorial statues in Memphis."
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