Debate Over Confederate Monuments Continues In Court After Their Removal

Jul 30, 2018
Originally published on July 30, 2018 7:05 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nearly a year ago, white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. The protests turned violent, and a counterdemonstrator was killed. Those events in Charlottesville ignited debates across the country over what to do with Confederate monuments. Since then, dozens of statues have come down. But the process isn't easy. Seven Southern states have laws protecting military monuments and Confederate symbols. So recently I visited Memphis, Tenn., because they found a novel way around that problem. The fight in Memphis focused on a statue of a Confederate general and slave trader, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

For 112 years, it stood right here on a massive marble pedestal in the middle of Memphis in Health Sciences Park.

LEE MILLAR: No, the correct name is Forrest Park.

CORNISH: This is Lee Millar, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He counts Forrest as a distant relative. The city of Memphis changed the name of this park in 2013, and Millar refuses to use the new one.

MILLAR: They think they can do whatever they want to anyway, so they call it something else.

CORNISH: The pedestal is now empty. It's surrounded by a chain-link fence and no trespassing signs. But Millar can still picture that statue.

MILLAR: It was 21 feet tall. It was made out of bronze. It was General Forrest on his horse, his favorite horse, King Philip, that he rode - one of the ones he rode throughout the war between the states.

CORNISH: Not all Memphians remember the statue so wistfully.

TAMI SAWYER: They don't say Nathan Bedford Forrest, who owned slaves, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was racist and violent against black people.

CORNISH: Tami Sawyer is the founder of Take 'em Down 901, the group of activists that fought to remove the city's Confederate statues.

SAWYER: They say Nathan Bedford Forrest, a true Southern gentleman. Those are lies to me.

CORNISH: We met both Sawyer and Millar at the same park, same pedestal but not together. Sawyer helped organize rallies against this statue and a second monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a different park.

SAWYER: We really spent a whole summer in this heat out here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting) Nathan Bedford has got to go - hey, hey.

CORNISH: Rallies that gained momentum after the violence in Charlottesville in August.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose park?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: Our park.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose park?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: Our park.

CORNISH: Memphis city officials were open to change. But in Tennessee and half a dozen other states, it's illegal to remove monuments from government property without some kind of state approval. The mayor believed he found a loophole - Memphis could sell those city parks to a friendly buyer. Then the parks would no longer be government property, and that new owner could remove the Confederate statues. So on December 20, the City Council approved the sale to a newly formed nonprofit, and immediately the plan went into motion. Both Lee Millar and Tami Sawyer were there that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A lot of police presence here at Health Sciences Park where the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue is. Take a look behind me.

MILLAR: This was about 5 o'clock.

SAWYER: The sun was setting. It was cold and rainy.

MILLAR: Anti-Forrest protesters gathered across the street.

SAWYER: There were about a hundred of us standing on the hill across the street.

MILLAR: Shouting and making a lot of noise.

(CHEERING)

SAWYER: There were activists. There were school teachers. My phone is blowing up.

MILLAR: My telephone was just erupting from people all over the country who were seeing this on the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Actually, they are putting the straps on, getting closer and closer to taking the statue down.

SAWYER: We saw the cranes come in. We're screaming.

MILLAR: They had to cut down one of the trees to get to it.

SAWYER: It's like another hour. We're like, is it happening tonight? Are they playing with us? And at 9:01, Nathan Bedford Forrest was lifted off the base.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's in the air, y'all. He's in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Haul him out. Haul him out.

CORNISH: And when the night was over, Sawyer was emotional.

SAWYER: I've seen people fight for their entire lives and not get a moment like that.

CORNISH: So was Lee Millar.

MILLAR: Maybe ask your listeners, what would it feel like if your fifth great-grandfather's grave was destroyed? Yes, it's personal.

CORNISH: The remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife are still buried under the statue's now-barren pedestal, so Millar and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are suing. They're accusing Memphis and the new nonprofit - it's called Greenspace - of desecrating a grave site and skirting state law. That leaves the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis in limbo. They're now in an undisclosed location, and only one man knows where they are.

VAN DAVIS TURNER JR: My name is Van Davis Turner Jr. I'm a Shelby County commissioner for District 12. I'm also the president of Memphis Greenspace Incorporated.

CORNISH: Now the owner of two parks.

TURNER JR: Now the owner of two parks.

CORNISH: Indefinitely.

TURNER JR: Perhaps so, and two statues hopefully not indefinitely. We're ready to get rid of them.

CORNISH: We met Van Turner in the park down by the Mississippi River where the Davis statue once stood. He says last summer, he was hanging out with the city attorney at an NBA game when he heard about the idea of starting a nonprofit to buy the parks. And honestly, it didn't sound all that great.

TURNER JR: Because this was potentially a dangerous situation. And I have a wife and three children. You would possibly, you know, get death threats. And we did receive some. And are you willing to endure this? And I said yes, so basically...

CORNISH: So it'll cost you a lot of money.

TURNER JR: Right.

CORNISH: People will threaten your family.

TURNER JR: Right.

CORNISH: And it's going to be a legal morass.

TURNER JR: Right.

CORNISH: And you were like, sign me up.

TURNER JR: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

Van Turner says the first company he hired to remove the statues pulled out after hearing of a contractor in Louisiana whose car was set on fire for doing a similar job in New Orleans. Once Turner did get the Memphis statues down, he still owned two parks, parks that needed the grass mowed, the lights kept on, liability insurance. He estimates it costs $30,000 a year or so. Offers to take the Confederate monuments off his hand dried up once the lawsuit kicked in. And while Memphis officials haven't faced any sort of backlash from this majority black city, there are some people who feel strongly that the move was unfair.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Unintelligible) Forward march.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

CORNISH: Many of them were gathered on a plantation in nearby Bartlett, Tenn., to celebrate Nathan Bedford Forrest's 197th birthday.

MILLAR: Contribute to the water bucket. That goes to our parks fund, the save the Forrest statue. And we're going to get it back, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Right.

MILLAR: Yeah.

CORNISH: That's Lee Millar again fundraising for the suit while Confederate soldier reenactors fired off a musket salute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I suggest you hold onto the small children and the dogs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: In this audience, Paul Allford of Memphis and Gary Elum of Potts Camp, Miss., say they are still upset at city officials in Memphis. And some of their language sounds extreme.

PAUL ALLFORD: Well, I think it's deplorable - is what it all comes down to. The mayor of Memphis, Strickland, like, he needs to be taken out and hung.

GARY ELUM: Since they took the statues down December 20 of last year, I have not spent one red cent in Memphis. And I refuse to spend a dime there. I'm not going to put money in the coffers as long as they're acting the way they're acting.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: The Republican-led state legislature is also punishing Memphis financially. They cut money out of the state budget for the city's bicentennial celebration. But the person who should be worried about this doesn't care.

JIM STRICKLAND: This is Jim Strickland, mayor of the city of Memphis.

CORNISH: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came up with the idea to sell the city parks to a private group that would take the Confederate monuments down. And he says he doesn't care about the state docking Memphis funds or for those who argue it was a shady move to sell the parks to get around state law or about arguments that he is erasing history.

STRICKLAND: A statue is not history. A statue is placed in honor of someone. If you go to Germany, there is not a statue of Adolf Hitler. But you certainly learn about Adolf Hitler. And people ought to have in their history textbooks and in museums a history of Nathan Bedford Forrest. But statues are for honoring people. Memphis of the 21st century does not want to honor that individual.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU SONG, "SCARLET TOWN")

CORNISH: So what do you do with a Confederate statue of a figure that a community no longer wants to honor? Some have suggested they belong in museums. So why aren't those institutions stepping up? We'll find out tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.