After heated protests in Charlottesville, Va., over the planned removal of a Confederate statue where one woman was killed and several were injured, citizens stormed the Tennessee State Capitol demanding the removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest was a known slave trader, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War — and remains a controversial figure whose name and figure is still used throughout the state in several monuments.
The Forrest bust, which is located in the rotunda at the Tennessee State Capitol and is displayed prominently, was put there in the '70s. On Aug. 14, protesters placed signs around the bust advocating for its removal and one protester also covered the bust in a shroud of black fabric as protests and rallies broke out in several cities across the country. Citizens have also demanded a statue of Forrest on the side of Interstate 65 come down — though that statute is privately owned and not in a state building on display.
State Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who is also chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, issued a statement following the incidents in Virginia asking for the bust to be removed from the state building.
“The incident this past weekend in Charlottesville is a painful reminder of the devastation and hurt that racism and hate can cause,” Akbari’s statement reads. “White nationalism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism and racism have no place in our society. We express our sincere condolences and support for the family of Heather Heyer, who tragically lost her life fighting against such hate, for the families of the two Virginia State Police officers and for those injured in the demonstration.”
Akbari said the rally where citizens came to the Capitol to demand the bust get removed was encouraging to her, but that the state needed to fully denonce Forrest.
“The U.S. slave trade is the darkest stain on this nation’s history, and should be remembered as the ultimate test of faith, endurance and fortitude of a people enslaved and deprived of even the most basic human rights,” Akbari said. “This part of our history should be learned from and not celebrated. Our public buildings, parks and other areas where we gather, and where our children play, should be free of reminders of bigotry and hate.”
In Memphis, Akbari hopes to work with Mayor Jim Strickland to “resettle the statue and remains” of Forrest, and in Nashville plans to keep pressing Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Historical Commission to relocate the bust in the Capitol.
“While this won’t be an easy process, we are not daunted,” Akbari said. “We will remain strong and steadfast until these hurtful symbols are moved to the history museums and cemeteries where they rightfully belong.”
As he has in the past, Haslam said he didn’t think the Capitol was a place that should honor Nathan Bedford Forrest — nor should it display the Confederate flag in any capacity. While President Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacists and called them good people at a press conference on Aug. 15, Haslam agreed with protesters that the Forrest statue should come down.
“My position on this issue has not changed — I do not believe Nathan Bedford Forrest should be one of the individuals we honor at the Capitol,” Haslam said in an issued statement. “The [Tennessee] General Assembly has established a process for addressing these matters and I strongly encourage the Capitol Commission and the Historical Commission to act.”
This isn’t the first time citizens and policymakers have demanded the Forrest bust come out of the Capitol. As recently as 2015, similar calls to action from citizens and legislators went out. At that time, the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to study all monuments, but never came to a conclusion on whether to remove the statue.
A law passed this past year called the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act also adds barriers to removing the bust as it says two-thirds of the historical commission as well as two-thirds of a commission for the Capitol itself have to agree to any changes to a monument. As of press time, the bust still had not been removed from the Tennessee State Capitol.