Nathan Bedford Forrest Day Still Observed In TN After Leg Stands Up For Slave Trader Again

Screenshot, Tennessee General Assembly
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March 24, 2021 2:44 p.m.

Tennessee will continue observing Nathan Bedford Forrest Day every year on the slave trader, Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard’s birthday, after yet another unsuccessful attempt to eliminate the day of observation once and for all.

As the fight continues over the bust of Forrest currently sitting in the Capitol, the continued observation of his birthday was a reminder of the Klan leader’s ongoing political presence in the state.

It’s not for lack of trying: Rep. London Lamar (D) gave an emotional presentation Tuesday in which she asked her colleagues not to continue honoring a man who fought to keep slavery legal.

“He fought to keep Black people like myself and your other colleagues as slaves in chains. He sold us for servants,” Lamar told the committee.

“We don’t need to have everybody, including myself, recognize a man who fought to make me a slave,” she added. “If he was alive today, he would want me to be in shackles, digging up dirt for nothing, for free. He would rape me. He would kill my mom and dad. He would take me away from my family.”

“I love all of y’all,” the representative said, “and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want me to be a slave, so don’t make me recognize a day to celebrate a man who fought to make me a slave.”

The House Naming and Designating Committee approved of the same bill from Lamar by one vote last year, though it ultimately stalled in the legislature. This year, the committee rejected the measure with a quick voice vote. Nathan Bedford Forrest Day remains on the state calendar, though legislation passed last year allowing the governor to skip officially having to “proclaim” the day of observance.

In another committee on Tuesday, representatives considered HB 1227, a bill to replace the members of the Tennessee Historical Commission with a whole new slate of members. The bill began picking up steam just days after that commission voted to take the bust of Forrest out of the Tennessee capitol, 43 years after its installation in 1978.

Gov. Bill Lee (R) supports the removal of the Forrest bust; the governor also picks all of the historical commission members. Under the proposal, the House and Senate speakers would each get to pick a third of the new commission, and the governor the other third.

The bill didn’t receive a vote Tuesday — the committee ran out of time — but sponsor Rep. John Ragan (R) told his colleagues that “the general assembly can now have a voice, if you will, in ensuring the Tennessee Historical Commission is aware of the people that we represent.”

“Right now, some would argue that’s not the case,” he said, adding later: “It’s not that I dislike the governor or the commission, I think that we, collectively, representing the people that we represent, need to have our say in this.”

Joseph Williams, director of external affairs for the governor, framed the bill as an example of “cancel culture.”

“The governor’s concern today is that this bill proposes to cancel the historic commission as it exists,” he said.

“It just boggles my mind why somebody would fight so hard to keep a slave trader in the state capitol,” Sen. Brenda Gilmore told TPM earlier Tuesday. “We’re not saying take it down, we’re just saying move it down a couple blocks to the state museum.”

One prominent figure in Tennessee history doesn’t have a fraction of the recognition Forrest does: Ida B. Wells, the crusading journalist and anti-lynching activist who lived and worked in the state for part of her life.

Activists and Democrats have fought to have the plaza outside the Tennessee capitol — currently simply known as “Legislative Plaza” — named after Wells for months, and the plaza was the site of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May last year.

Rep. Barbara Cooper (D) tried to make official the “Ida B. Wells-Barnett Plaza” once again Tuesday, but her pitch was met, once again, with a “no” vote from the Naming and Designating Committee.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R) voiced concerns about the precedent a name change would set.

“I believe, in my heart, that the Legislative Plaza is a neutral zone, is a place where I fear just putting anybody’s — not anybody, in regards to Ms. Ida — but naming it a certain person at the Legislative Plaza I think would do us wrongly going forward,” Weaver said.

“Twenty, 25 years and somebody else wants to name it something again.”

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