There’s no doubt in Tennessee State Sen. Heidi Campbell’s (D) mind that Senate Republicans are retaliating against a state historical commission for voting to remove a bust of the slave trader, Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol.
The Tennessee Historical Commission voted 25-1 last week to remove the bust and place it in a museum. On Wednesday, eight days later, five Republicans on a Senate committee voted to advance a bill to dismiss the commission’s current members entirely, and replace them with a new, 12-member body. An amendment to the legislation would also require any commission decisions about removing monuments to be approved by a joint resolution of the general assembly.
“It’s embarrassing, is what it is,” Campbell told TPM Thursday, adding that she believed the bill to replace the commission had enough support to reach the governor’s desk.
But the effort to sack the historical commission is just the latest in a years-long bureaucratic struggle over monuments to Confederate history in Tennessee. In fact, the current rules for removing monuments date back to 2013, when the state passed the Heritage Protection Act, barring the removal of monuments on public property without a two-thirds waiver vote from the commission.
Later, during another monument removal impasse in 2017, the majority-Black city of Memphis successfully circumvented the law by selling two public parks that contained Confederate monuments to a nonprofit run by Shelby County commissioner and NAACP official Van Turner for $1,000. The nonprofit then removed the statues, one of Forrest and one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The legislature took note. The following year, it amended the Heritage Protection Act to prevent another such transfer in the future.
Turner told TPM the latest bill amounted to the legislature moving the goalposts yet again.
“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,” Turner said.
Installed in 1978, the Forrest bust in the capitol has been the subject of years of protests. After the police killing of George Floyd in May in Minneapolis, legislators voted to keep the bust in place, but protesters swamped the capitol demanding the bust’s removal. Gov. Bill Lee (R) also said he believed it should be removed.
In a July compromise vote, the State Capitol Commission voted to remove Forrest and two other busts — neither of them of Confederates. That sent the issue to the historical commission, which overwhelmingly approved the capitol commission’s waiver request last week.
And now, the Republican bill threatens to replace the historical commission altogether, adding yet another hurdle to the already-arduous process.
“This process was created to wear people down,” Brandon Puttbrese, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, told TPM.
“The process was made deliberately difficult, because the assumption was, the folks who were going to be bringing the petitions to remove Confederate memorials would always be Democrats, or progressives, or more liberal-minded city councilors. The whole game here is to wear them down, process them to death.”
The sponsor of the latest legislation, Sen. Joey Hensley (R) told TPM he introduced the bill to give the legislature input on the historical commission.
“My legislation is an effort to improve the current process, not a response to current events,” he said in a statement.
And before voting to replace the Tennessee Historic Commission Wednesday, State Senator Janice Bowling (R) warned of the dangers of “cancel culture.”
“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,” she said.
Edward Phillips, an attorney who represents the surviving great, great grandsons of Forrest, condemned slavery to TPM but said Forrest’s role as a slave trader did not mean his bust should be removed. He compared the issue to statues of Roman rulers who governed empires that allowed slavery.
“We can’t erase our past, we can’t ignore it. We have to stare at it and think about it,” Phillips said.
Campbell wasn’t hearing it.
“We can stare our history in the face in a museum, where we have some context there that describes to us exactly what Nathan Bedford Forrest actually represented,” Campbell said.
“It causes some of our people — our brothers, our sisters, our family — pain when they go by it, when they see it,” the senator said. “It represents oppression to them.”