Across the Southeastern United States, many cities are facing the decision on whether or not to preserve or remove their monuments and memorials to the Confederate States of America, its soldiers and military leaders.
On Aug. 12, tensions ramped up in Charlottesville, Va., during a “Unite the Right” rally protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, which led to the death of 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer. Citizens of Durham, N.C., saw their bronze Confederate soldier monument toppled to the ground by a group of protesters two days after the events in Charlottesville. On Aug. 18, Baltimore authorities removed four monuments, including statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, in the dead of night to avoid controversy.
Murfreesboro is not exempt from the Confederate monument debate. Following the events in Charlottesville, the monument to Rutherford County Confederate soldiers on the Murfreesboro Public Square was concealed with a sheet the night of Aug. 13. The monument memorializes soldiers killed during the Battle of Stones River, one of the deadliest battles during the American Civil War.
In 2015, petitions and protests erupted at Middle Tennessee State University regarding the name of the campus ROTC building, Forrest Hall, named after the controversial Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. A task force was convened with the purpose to make a final recommendation to MTSU President Dr. Sidney McPhee on whether or not the name should remain. Members of the task force included student, alumni, community and faculty representatives, such as State Sen. Bill Ketron, an MTSU alumnus, and Brigadier General David Ogg Jr., U.S. Army (Retired). By April 2016, the task force held its final meeting where it recommended changing the name of the ROTC building. President McPhee then forwarded the recommendation to the Tennessee Board of Regents and Tennessee Historical Commission. The Tennessee Board of Regents unanimously approved the name change.
Presently, local governments in Tennessee do not have the authority to alter or remove any of its monuments to Confederate soldiers or leaders. Under the Heritage Protection Act, originally passed in 2013 and updated in 2016, those monuments are protected from removal or alteration.
The Heritage Protection Act, found in Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 4-1-412, states that: “Except as otherwise provided in this section, no memorial regarding a historic conflict, historic entity, historic event, historic figure or historic organization that is, or is located on, public property, may be removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered.”
However, the Heritage Protection Act does provide provisions to remove monuments or statues. According to the act, in order to remove or alter any “statue, monument, memorial, bust, nameplate, plaque, artwork, flag, historic display, school, street, bridge, or building that has been erected for, named, or dedicated on public property in honor of any historic conflict, historic entity, historic event, historic figure, or historic organization,” in Tennessee, the Heritage Protect Act requires a two-thirds majority vote by the Tennessee Historical Commission in favor of the alteration or removal. Prior to the 2016 update, the act only required a simple majority vote from the Tennessee Historical Commission to approve the removal or alteration of historical monuments or statues in Tennessee. State Rep. Steve McDaniel and Sen. Ketron sponsored the 2016 update to the statute.
Other states, such as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina have passed similar legislation in recent years.
“The purpose is to preserve history,” Sen. Ketron said when presenting the 2016 legislation for the Heritage Protection Act in the State and Local Government Committee. “The historic preservation is to encourage to the general public to combine our past, our present and our future. It does not halt growth or change but it does emphasize the totality of the human experience in a given community. And here in Tennessee, of course, you know, we have a very rich history that’s deep in historic-related tourism, which is a very large source of our revenue for both state and local government.”
On Aug. 18, State Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), announced that she had filed Senate Bill 1467 to exempt Shelby County from the Heritage Protection Act in order to give the city of Memphis the authority to make their own decisions about the status of Confederate monuments. Sen. Kyle’s proposed legislation would amend the Heritage Protection Act of 2016 to exclude any memorial on public property with a population greater than 900,000 residents.
“Friends, people in Memphis have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want a giant statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in their park,” Sen. Kyle said. “We shouldn’t have to wait for the historic commission to sign off and tell us what we’re allowed to do. I believe in the people of Memphis to work with our local officials to make the best decision for our city.”
On Aug. 22, Gov. Bill Haslam held a press conference in Memphis where he commented on the status of Confederate statues in Tennessee.
“We don’t always like the process, but I’m the governor, not the king, so I don’t get to decide all that. But we would like to see it dealt with as rapidly as possible,” Gov. Haslam said. “I think the city of Memphis should get to decide what happens on its own property. I think that’s a great principle that fits in this case.”
Gov. Haslam is one of the 29 members of the Tennessee Historical Commission that is set to review Memphis’s petition to remove the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis’s Health Sciences Park. Twenty-four of the members of the commission are appointed by the governor for terms of five years.
Also on Aug. 22, in an equally surprising turn of events, U.S. Senator and former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee came out in support of removing the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol, despite defending its placement during his tenure as governor of Tennessee.
“I, like other people, learn as we go along,” Sen. Alexander said. “As I look at it now, I think it’s not appropriate for General Forrest’s bust to be in a place of honor in the State Capitol. I’d rather see Howard Baker or Sam Houston or Minnie Pearl or Ben Hooks or someone who inspires all of us.” The Forrest bust in the state capitol is also subject to the provisions in the Heritage Protection Act of 2016.
The Tennessee Historical Commission is scheduled to hold its next meeting on Oct. 13 in Athens, Tenn. Memphis’s petition has not yet been scheduled to be heard at the October meeting. MTSU’s Forrest Hall name change has also not yet been scheduled to be heard by the commission as of press time. The commission’s chairman, Fisk University professor Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell Jr., is responsible for all scheduling decisions.
The Tennessee General Assembly will reconvene in January 2018 to propose, debate and vote on new legislation, such as Sen. Kyle’s proposal to exempt larger Tennessee cities from the Heritage Protection Act.
In July, Sen. Ketron announced his fourth attempt to run for Rutherford County mayor. The Rutherford County mayoral election will be held May 1, 2018.
Here’s what the people of Murfreesboro have to say about the monuments to the Confederate soldiers and Gen. Forrest surrounding the Rutherford County Courthouse:
Matthew Young – I view Murfreesboro like Gettysburg. It’s our history. If our town never had a battle and wasn’t hallowed ground I would be for removing the monument. Completely. But our community was ground zero for the Civil War. So much of our history—from the Battle of the Cedars, to the fight for Hoover’s Gap to Milton and the raid on the courthouse . . . what’s a shame is that more wasn’t preserved. If our community just had a Confederate monument, and we didn’t have any battle here I would be all for it being removed.
Matt Davis – This is about public real estate, and what is deserving of the most honored places. Moving statues is not the same as destroying history. We’ll still have our books, documentaries, diaries, literature and documents of the time. We still keep the battlefields and cemeteries as places of honor . . . children who saw relatives savagely lynched in the Jim Crow era are still alive now. I can’t tell them what to feel about these monuments, but some say it feels like they are there to keep African-Americans in their places. Because these are hurtful to a significant portion of my neighbors, I am willing to consider other options for placing them.
“It’s always been this way” is not good enough anymore.
Bill Jakes – In my entire life in this town I have never heard one single person say, “You know, that statue really makes me uncomfortable and hurts my feelings.” Now some Nazis kill someone in Virginia where a freaking street war was waged and all of a sudden people are hurt over a statue in Murfreesboro that’s 116 years old. Like we need this distraction with the way our government is being run. My family fought for Tennessee and Texas during the war. They were all poor farmers without slaves. I have no hate in my heart for anyone. I believe these men who gave their lives fought to protect what they saw as their home and country. This statue is dedicated to the honor of those fallen soldiers who stood beside my family in war. So, I have a personal connection. I believe they are worthy of the honor bestowed upon them. As someone who has studied the history of this town at length, I don’t and have never seen this monument as anything hateful. It’s a memorial to the honor and sacrifice of the soldiers from this town. Soldiers didn’t start the war and soldiers often had little to no choice whether they served or not. Being labeled a deserter was a crime punishable by death. And not swearing fealty to the Union was a crime punishable by death. So, how many options did these poor farmers really have?
I conclude that all these peace-loving people who need to remove a 116-year-old statue are the ones with some kind of hate festering in their hearts.
Kennedy Johnson – As an African-American I say leave it up. It was erected in front of the courthouse for a reason . . . that reason was to remind African-Americans that they would never receive equal justice . . . that truth is still self-evident.
Yancy Pearson – Those soldiers didn’t fight and die for their country. They fought and died in an act of treason to it. I am not so much hurt as disgusted. That is not a part of our history I’d choose to memorialize. Those soldiers, as brave as they were, did nothing to progress America. They have no place in governmental buildings. The founding fathers were slave owners, yes, but they actually did something for America. Not so with Confederates.
Henry Matthew Ward – Shall we be like ISIS in Mosul? Tear down history, art, anything that doesn’t perfectly agree with the politics of the time?
Sam Boyd – The 50th anniversary of the war was approaching after the turn of the century. The same artists and sculptors placing Southern memorials were also placing Northern ones as well during this time. Neither of these efforts, North or South, had anything to do with Jim Crow. Men didn’t return home. There were no headstones [at which] to visit a lost father, brother or son. These memorials were put up to provide healing as loved ones were laying in a pit somewhere in an unmarked grave. They took the place of a headstone or grave. As the 100th anniversary was approaching in 1961 to 1964 the entire nation was gearing up for it. The last Confederate soldier just died and a funeral was given with full U.S. military honors as he was laid to rest in the mid-1950s. States were placing historical markers along the roadsides. Flags were being placed on capital domes and within state flags. Ceremonies were being held. Museums were being created. Battlefields were being revitalized and preserved. Rebel this and rebel that were being named. And yes, memorials were being raised as the grandchildren of the veterans were still living. Do we realize that even today there are still among us real, direct daughters and sons of these veterans, still living?
Instead of trying to eliminate one group’s heritage, ironically in the name of diversity, I would rather see an inclusion of someone else’s. Tearing down one’s history doesn’t help raise another. The perpetually offended will never be satisfied, but only move on to another target. While I believe some are trying to be well-meaning they are starting down a road that will only lead to more hurt and division for our community for future generations. I support leaving them as they are. I would support an additional memorial on the courthouse square to also recognize and memorialize the hardships of slavery.
Cassetty Weed – A lot of people who saw these statues probably don’t even really know what they actually stand for. The people who are supposed to be offended have never been slaves, just as the others have never been slave owners. No disrespect intended but I am sure we could all go through and say we are offended by something, but that doesn’t mean we just remove it for the sake of someone’s feelings. It is all just really getting out of hand. There is a lot more to be concerned with than a statue. Leave them alone. Focus on the homeless and helping them, children who are being sold into sex slavery, the single mom who works but can’t provide enough food for her children, the elderly who have no one and sit all alone with no help or companionship. The list goes on. People need to put all of this ridiculous politically correct energy towards something that will actually change this country.