Bill To Gut TN Commission That Voted Out Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust Fizzles In Legislature

A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee lawmakers remain torn on whether to support a proposal for the removal of a contentiou... A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee lawmakers remain torn on whether to support a proposal for the removal of a contentious bust of the former Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. If approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the measure encourages the bust of Forrest be removed from the Tennessee Capitol and instead be replaced with an "appropriate tribute to a deserving Tennessean." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) MORE LESS
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March 30, 2021 6:18 p.m.

A bill to gut a commission that approved the removal of the first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard’s bust from the Tennessee state capitol fizzled out on Tuesday. 

The bill, H.B. 1227, would replace all of the members on the Tennessee Historical Commission with new members, just weeks after the commission voted to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest — a slave trader and Confederate general before his Klan leadership — from the state legislature. 

But on Tuesday, in a 4-3 vote, members of the Tennessee House Departments & Agencies Subcommittee sent the bill to “summer study,” effectively putting the legislation on ice. 

The bust, installed in 1978, has been the subject of protests ever since. The historical commission’s 25-1 vote earlier this month approved a waiver to move the bust from the capitol to a state museum down the street. 

That seemed to rankle members of the Republican-dominated legislature. During a Senate committee hearing that ended with the approval of a companion bill, one senator, Janice Bowling, said “In our culture today it seems there is a desire, it seems, to cancel history, cancel culture, cancel narratives that are just based on fact. And I think that that’s a dangerous precedent.” 

The bill to dissolve and reconstitute the commission seemed to activists and Democrats like just another hurdle tossed up by the state’s Republican Party, which dominates the legislature and has long defended Forrest’s legacy.

Forrest is still a powerful political symbol in the state and the Republican speaker of the House and lieutenant governor have both objected to the process the historical commission followed to approve the removal of the Klan leader’s bust — adding more potential hurdles to getting Forrest out of the capitol. 

Brandon Puttbrese, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, cautioned TPM that the legislature can revive bills with a two-thirds vote, but said Tuesday’s subcommittee decision to punt on the measure was “not expected.”

“It’s a polite way of killing the bill,” Puttbrese said of the summer study vote.

A Swipe At The Historical Commission

Though the sponsor of the Senate legislation denied to TPM that it was a response to “current events,” the bill to gut the commission — which was given a positive recommendation by a Senate committee a week after the historical commission’s vote — was widely seen as retaliation.

“It’s just odd that the legislature now finds it appropriate to dismantle the Tennessee Historical Commission when they made a decision which was their decision to make,” Van Turner, the Shelby County commissioner and state NAACP official told TPM earlier this month.

Commission member Kem Hinton, a celebrated Tennessee architect, declined to speculate about the motivation behind the legislation in an interview with TPM last week. 

But Hinton said public perception of the move would be clear. 

“This is an action because of that vote,” Hinton said. “Now, I have read things that say ‘It has nothing to do with current events,’ but I think that is not true, and certainly would never be perceived by the public that way, regardless of good intentions or whatever.” 

During Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing, commission Chair Derita Coleman Williams also acknowledged the March 9 vote, adding that criticisms about “cancel culture” were unwarranted. 

“The words about criticism of erasing history and ‘cancel culture’ are exactly the opposite of the decisions of this commission in the past,” she said. 

She closed her testimony: “I appreciate your time and consideration before you erase history yourselves by replacing these commission members.”  

The committee also heard testimony from a liaison to Gov. Bill Lee (R), who expressed the governor’s opposition to the bill, as well as the longtime former State Rep. Steve McDaniel — himself an admirer of Forrest’s military career — who voiced some concern about the legislation. 

“I’m concerned that if this bill passes as written, you’re going to just wipe out the current commission,” he said. “That is a concern of mine because all of the institutional knowledge that’s there on the commission, plus the people who have left to go to retirement on the commission, it’s really handicapping that process.”

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. John Ragan (R), defended the legislation and said he’d be open to adding amendments to address those concerns and others before the bill reached the full House State Government Committee. But members of the subcommittee didn’t seem swayed. 

“Do you think that this bill could use a little more study, or going over, before we actually make a decision on this bill today?” Rep. Dale Carr (R) asked Ragan.

“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, you know?” subcommittee Chair John Holsclaw (R) added, noting that he appreciated the “shell” of the bill. 

Rep. Bill Beck (D) said it seemed the bill still needed “a lot of work” before proposing to send it to summer study, which succeeded in the 4-3 vote.

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