Legislative battles are looming over a spate of bills designed to hammer Memphis and any other cities accused of violating the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.
Lawmakers filed several pieces of legislation aimed at punishing local governments in the wake of the Memphis City Council move to topple the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Health Sciences Park and two other Confederate monuments in another park by selling the property to a newly-created nonprofit organization.
The legislation is drawing the ire of Memphis legislators who belong to the Black Caucus.
“I think that there is in some cases a lack of respect for the feelings of citizens where these monuments of hate were put in place,” says state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “I think there’s a lack of sensitivity in some of these cases, and I think some of it is just venomous in their approach to try to be punitive to a city that didn’t want those symbols standing over their citizens.”
Says Joe Towns, another Memphis Democrat, “They’re reaching. In my opinion, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s retaliatory and it’s despicable if they would even think of something that’s retroactive.”
A separate complaint filed against Memphis by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Forrest descendants is to be considered by the Tennessee Historical Commission at the direction of a Nashville chancellor within 60 days.
The State Comptroller’s Office also is investigating the situation. But several bills related to the matter could be considered by the time the matter reaches the commission or is partially resolved by the comptroller’s report. Among them:
The Tennessee Historic Properties Act sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) and Sen. Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains) would allow the state retroactively to take historical property “in jeopardy of loss, destruction or exploitation” through eminent domain. All properties falling within the scope of the Heritage Protection Act, such as the Memphis monuments of Forrest and Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, would be jointly owned by the state and the local government. Local governments would pay the costs of maintaining the property.
A willful violation of the Heritage Protection Act by transferring or trying to transfer ownership of historic property would “constitute grounds for ouster from office” for any local official involved in a “violation.”
Nicely contends the state already has authority to condemn such property.
“This just basically reminds the cities that we can just take over all these parks if we want to. And if we do, we’ll pay them what it just sold for,” Nicely says. “That park just sold for $1,000, so we could pick up a nice little piece of real estate down there for the state, and we could name it whatever we wanted to.”
Nicely acknowledged the bill probably won’t pass but he says it will “send a message to Memphis that we really, really don’t appreciate you acting like a Third-World Country. There’s ways to do things, and that sets a bad precedent, sneaking in there and trying to do something.”
Shortly after the Memphis City Council approved the sale of the two parks to the nonprofit Memphis Greenspace, the monuments were removed the same night after dark and put away for safekeeping. The City Council took action after the Tennessee Historical Commission turned down its request for a waiver to remove the monuments.
Memphis legislators have said the City Council found a legal way to have the statues removed after the 2016 state law handcuffed the city.
Asked if he felt the city found a loophole in the law, Nicely says, “No, they just ignored the law. There’s not a loophole. But it would be perfectly legal for us to go down there and use eminent domain and take that park over.”
Legislation by Rep. Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) and Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) would prohibit public entities from selling, donating or transferring memorials “for the purpose of circumventing the requirement to obtain a waiver” because of an “adverse ruling” by the Tennessee Historical Commission. The measure would not be retroactive.
“What Memphis did was wrong, and I just want to make sure no other city, county, whatever does the same thing Memphis did,” White says.
Asked if she understands how Memphis residents could be irritated by Forrest’s position as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, White says he also had “his redemption.”
“We learn from history so we do not repeat history, the bad parts, again. So I think just taking down a monument doesn’t erase what he did or did not do,” she says.
A bill by Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) would stop state funding for any local government that sells, removes, relocates or destroys a memorial for which a Historical Commission waiver was denied. Van Huss says he plans to amend the legislation so it won’t impact funds for welfare, health care and education.
Van Huss isn’t certain Memphis broke the law, but he says, “I think it was definitely against the spirit of the law. I think that Memphis needs to have consequences because if they don’t then every other municipality’s gonna know that they can get away with it too.”
Rep. Steve McDaniel is sponsoring a bill to update the Heritage Protection Act he passed two years ago. It would disallow the future sale of property with historical monuments or memorials to a nonprofit organization. He says he hasn’t looked at the other pieces of legislation and didn’t know if he could support them.
“I’m for doing something logical, reasonable, something that makes senses that moves this whole situation forward,” says McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican preparing to leave the General Assembly later this year.
Much of the argument about the monument removal stems from the legacy of Forrest, a slave trader and planter prior to the Civil War who used his wealth to fund his cavalry and was one of the only enlisted men in the Confederacy to rise to the rank of lieutenant general.
Forrest is considered a military genius because of his guerrilla warfare tactics. But he also was in command during the slaughter of Union troops at the Battle of Fort Pillow near Memphis, most of them black troops.
After the war, the Ku Klux Klan named him its first grand wizard, according to numerous reports, though many of his defenders say he called for disbanding the KKK and stepped down from the position.
Nicely points out Forrest was the first white man to speak to the Standard of Pole Bearers, forerunner to the NAACP, and encouraged Memphis’ black residents to find successful careers. Nicely also says Forrest helped rebuild black churches after the war and that the black community asked the Memphis City Council to let residents use city parks one day a month to honor Forrest.
The East Tennessee legislator says the monument of Forrest on horseback didn’t have anything to do with racism.
“I hate the fact that they use racism to take it,” he says of the Memphis City Council’s action. “They’re race baiters, basically. When you use racism to do something like that, you’re a race baiter.”
Parkinson, however, called the story of Forrest’s “redemption” a “false narrative” and says even if it were true, Forrest still made his fortune by human trafficking.
“That was one of the most cruel and savage periods in American history,” Parkinson says. “There were a lot of lives lost, a lot of (people) separated, and people today that are descendants of slavery are still dealing with the effects of that period.”
Towns called the proposal to oust elected officials outrageous.
“You gotta be out of your damn mind, talking about ousting some elected officials that the citizens voted for … because of some stuff you don’t want, and they’re fighting your crap,” he says.
Towns says he hopes the legislation goes to the Supreme Court to show “the ignorance and the gravity of this, which makes Tennessee all over the country look like a bunch of damn backwards fools when everybody is taking these statues down.”
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.