The effort to remove the bust has sent ripples through the GOP-dominated Statehouse, where Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton disputed the move and questioned whether the Legislature should put the issue to a vote.
“Every person who enters the Capitol — the people's house — should feel welcome. The State Museum is the appropriate place to discuss and study the life and exploits of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He should not hold a place of honor in the State Capitol."
- House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Black woman from Memphis
Both lawmakers have also called on the Attorney General’s Office to decide if the Historical Commission could remove the bust without first receiving approval from the State Building Commission.
Last year, the Tennessee Legislature refused to advance a bill calling for the bust’s removal despite impassioned pleas from Black lawmakers.
Forrest’s bust at the Capitol was first unveiled in 1978 and has stirred strong opposition for decades.
Forrest amassed a large fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War broke out. A Confederate cavalry general during the war, he became a post-war leader of the Klan, which terrorized Black people and sought to reverse Reconstruction efforts and restore white supremacy.
“Forrest represents pain, suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans, and that pain is very real for our fellow Tennesseans as they walk the halls of our Statehouse and evaluate how he could be one of just the nine busts elevated to a place of reverence,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a recorded video message during Tuesday’s meeting.
The bust of Forrest is one of many that have become targeted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May 2020.
During the nationwide unrest that erupted over his police custody death, Civil War relics, Confederate statues and monuments to slavery were vandalized and torn down in many cities across the country.
At least 160 public symbols honoring Confederate rebels across the nation were toppled or removed from public spaces throughout 2020, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Before last year, there had been nearly 2,100 symbols nationwide, primarily in the South.
There are now about 704 Confederate monuments still standing, the SPLC says. And taking some of them down may be difficult, particularly in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — states where lawmakers have enacted policies protecting the monuments.
Lee initially resisted calls to relocate the Bedford bust just before taking office in 2018, telling The Tennessean at the time that “the Ku Klux Klan is a part of our history that we’re not proud of in Tennessee, and we need to be reminded of that and make certain that we don’t forget it. So I wouldn’t advocate to remove” the bust.
“Forrest represents pain, suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans, and that pain is very real for our fellow Tennesseans as they walk the halls of our Statehouse and evaluate how he could be one of just the nine busts elevated to a place of reverence."
- Gov. Bill Lee
Yet by 2020, he said he wouldn’t oppose adding context to the Forrest bust and has since said the opportunity for “full context” on Forrest is available only in the state museum.
Tennessee’s Black legislative caucus has particularly been vocal how painful it has been to walk by the bust, displayed prominently between the House and Senate chamber, as they carry out their work each day.
“Every person who enters the Capitol — the people’s house — should feel welcome,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Black woman from Memphis. “The State Museum is the appropriate place to discuss and study the life and exploits of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He should not hold a place of honor in the State Capitol.”
Along with the Forrest bust in Tennessee, the Historical Commission agreed that the busts of David Farragut, a Union military leader, and U.S. Navy Adm. Albert Gleaves be moved from the Capitol to the state museum. The decision was that state and federal officials should be honored at the museum rather than in the Capitol.
Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.