This month, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to begin an intricate process to remove the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a park near downtown Memphis — along with the remains of Forrest and his wife.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — What people see when they look up at the towering statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in a park near downtown Memphis usually depends on their deepest beliefs, their memories, their loyalties and maybe even their DNA.
Many see a Memphis slave trader, the original grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a war criminal who led a gruesome Confederate massacre of surrendered black and white Union troops at nearby Fort Pillow in 1864.
Others see a gallant but misunderstood Civil War general, a military genius and a hero who made a speech calling for racial reconciliation in 1875. And some passers-by have little or no idea who the guy on the horse is, and do not much care.
But this month, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to begin an intricate process of removing the brass statue from the park — along with the remains of Forrest and his wife, encased since 1905 in its marble base. This effort joins a national wave of casting off Confederate icons since the massacre last month at a church in Charleston, S.C.
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Efforts to take down public flags or monuments associated with the Confederacy are being renewed in communities like New Orleans; Tampa, Fla.; Austin, Texas; and Stone Mountain, Ga. Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, are among educational institutions being pushed to rename campus buildings honoring people connected to slavery and the Confederacy.
But because of Forrest’s notoriety, Memphis’ harsh racial history and the fact that advocates want to disinter bodies, not just take down a flag or monument, the issue has particular resonance.
Recently, Nick Hicks, 26, attended a small, pop-up rally at the park to support removal efforts. To Hicks, who is black, the monument represents “the pain that this man brought on a lot of black people.”
Hicks, a native Memphian, is a sales analyst and hip-hop MC. “When I look at that statue, I see terrorism, racism and white supremacy. It is blatant arrogance,” he said, “for it to be put in a public park, in the middle of a city that is majority black.”
But Lee Millar, 65, also a native Memphian and the local spokesman of Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the monument “represents what it always has: honor and valor.” Forrest, he said, was “a great community man. He was an inspiration for everyone.”
Dressed as a Civil War re-enactor at the park July 12, Millar hosted a birthday ceremony for Forrest and a rally against removing the monument. More than 500 attendees carried rebel flags and wore T-shirts bearing slogans like “Confederate Lives Matter.”
Councilman William Boyd, 79, who is white, was inspired in another direction when he voted to remove the monument. Boyd’s great-great-great-grandfather gave Memphis its name, and his great-great-grandfather became the city’s first mayor, in 1827, but was later shunned for marrying his mixed-race wife.
At the City Hall vote, Boyd explained his decision. “I have weighed this business about Forrest for a couple of years now,” he said, “and the thing that I can’t overcome in my mind is that he’s a slave trader. I just cannot forgive him for that.”
Indeed, Forrest became a millionaire here before the Civil War, selling thousands of human beings in a “Negro Mart” he owned on Adams Avenue, around the corner from present-day City Hall. During some of that time, he also served as a city alderman, a precursor to the City Council.
One ad for Forrest’s business said, “We will pay the highest cash price for all good Negroes offered.” It promised potential buyers “a lot of Virginia Negroes on hand, for sale, in the fall. Negroes bought and sold on commission.”
In 1968, black Memphis sanitation workers marched past Adams Avenue on their way to City Hall, wearing signs declaring “I Am a Man.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated here while in town supporting those on strike.
Forrest’s great-great-grandson Kevin Bradley, 62, has lived in Memphis all his life. He said his family was absolutely opposed to moving the statue or the remains. “Slavery was wrong,” he said, “but that’s the way it was back in that history. George Washington owned slaves. Are you going to take him off the dollar bill? You cannot change history.”
Mayor AC Wharton Jr. of Memphis agreed — up to a point. “We can’t change history,” he said during an interview in which he recalled Jim Crow-era indignities he faced growing up as an African-American in Tennessee. “We can’t unring a rung bell. But how long do we have to pay fealty to it? That’s what monuments represent. I’m resolved we are going to remove it.”
Wharton, 70, had backed a council act in 2013 that removed “Forrest” from the park’s name. But until now, political momentum in this city, which is 63 percent black, was not strong enough to remove the 9,500-pound statue and its 8-ton marble base.
The Charleston killings changed that, said Charles McKinney, chairman of Africana studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. “Charleston gives politicians the cover to do what they should have done decades ago,” he said.
In 1905, white Memphis society scions created the park to be Forrest’s new resting place. They dug up his body and his wife’s, 28 years after his death in 1877, and moved them there. They commissioned the statue, which was designed in New York and built in Paris, to sit atop the remains.
Then the park was dedicated, just as streetcar segregation laws were coming into full force here.
Many of the Confederate monuments being reconsidered now were put up then. Part of the intent behind them, said Beverly Bond, a history professor at the University of Memphis, was to intimidate black people. “I am pretty sure,” she said, “nobody ever took a vote among African Americans here in 1905 asking, ‘Do you want this statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in this park?’ ”
Myron Lowery, 68, the City Council chairman, is leading the removal effort. He is aware that as a black man, he would not have been a public official in 1905, and that if he had opposed the statue then, he said, “I could have been lynched.”
The council’s resolution did not settle things. But it initiated two separate, complex processes — one to move the remains and another to move the statue. The resolution started legal procedures to move the remains back to the cemetery. That case will be heard in the Chancery Court, directly across from where Forrest once sold slaves.
The resolution also began a six-week ordinance procedure to remove the statue. After that, the Tennessee Historical Commission will have to vote in October on waiving a 2013 state heritage law barring war-monument changes.
The city owns the statue of Forrest. If the waiver passes, the city will have the statue on hand, for sale, in the fall. Lowery said they were already fielding offers from lots of potential buyers.