144 Years After His Death, Nathan Bedford Forrest Still Rules Tennessee Politics

(TPM Illustration/Getty Images)
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March 19, 2021 5:11 p.m.

In 1978, a bust of the slave trader, Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest was installed in the Tennessee capitol building, immediately prompting protests. 

Forty-three years later, the effort to remove the bust has some state Republicans grinding every bureaucratic lever at their disposal to a halt, the latest in a long line of fights on the general’s behalf. This week, several Republicans backed a bill to sack members of a historical commission that voted to remove the bust.

Larry McCluney, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, thinks the solution is simple: those offended by the Forrest’s likeness should simply look away. 

“We’re dealing with a time period now where everybody is offended by something,” McCluney told TPM. “They talk about the issues of slavery, racism, white supremacy — well, you know, our nation has a history of that, and it’s been around a lot longer than people realize.” 

Nowadays, it’s a bit more difficult for elected Republican politicians to stick up for Forrest, whose presence in the capitol is at the center of the fight over the legislation to replace the historical commission.

“I don’t know that it’s specifically related to the three statues that are up on the second floor, but that could be the motivation behind it,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) told reporters Thursday when asked about the bill.

“But overall, not looking at the motivation, I think it’s a good thing,” he added.

McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) have written to the state’s attorney general, raising concerns that the commission didn’t follow the legal requirements for issuing its decision.

Justin Jones, a young activist who has pushed for years for the statue’s removal, said the vote to move the bust out of the Capitol felt like a victory. To Jones, the bust has a clear purpose. 

“It’s meant to remind us that, even though they did remove those ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signs in the 1960s and 70s, they never replaced it with a ‘you’re welcome’ sign,” he said. “This symbol is a reminder that we’re not welcome there.” 

But the capitol bust is just the latest in a long fight over Forrest’s place in Tennessee. In 2017, the majority Black city of Memphis successfully got statues of Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis out of two parks by selling the land to a nonprofit, allowing them to circumvent a state law. The state legislature subsequently changed the law to prevent such a transfer in the future.

Forrest and his wife’s remains are still underground, beneath where his statue stood — though maybe not for too much longer. The weather needs to be right, and everyone’s schedules have to align, but when it’s time, Forrest’s body will emerge from the earth to a changed world. 

“The SCV, they’ve got a monumental task in front of them, no pun intended,” Edward Phillips, an attorney for Forrest’s descendants, told TPM. “It’s not easy, moving a grave.” 

McCluney, the SCV’s commander-in-chief, told TPM it was ultimately up to the Forrest family what to do with the remains. The group’s Facebook page, though, shows signs of a grand affair when the Forrests are reinterred at another location. 

“To make the reinternment [sic] open to members of our organization, this will not be cheap,” one post reads. “There is not a line item in the budget to cover the cost. Cost will include security, portable bathrooms, ambulance and fire services just to name a few. Everything that would be needed for a large crowd that could be as large as the Hunley funeral. That expected cost is $100,000.” 

McCluney detailed a potentially tricky exhumation. For one thing, others may be buried in the park, as well. 

“When you go to digging, you’ve got to be careful because you don’t know what you’re going to dig up, besides just General Forrest and his wife,” he said. 

Van Turner, a Tennessee NAACP official and Shelby County commissioner, is president and CEO of the nonprofit group that owns the parks now. He told TPM he’s looking forward to the day Forrest is gone.

“We’re waiting on the time to do that. In fact, the time is on their side,” Turner said said. “We just have to make the park available for them, to come in and get the remains.” 

“That’s going to be a relief, a burden off my shoulders once that happens,” he added. “I’ve been living with this thing since the removal of the monuments.” 

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