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How Memphis Toppled Its Confederate Statues

By outsmarting Tennessee’s conservative Legislature.

Protesters attend a rally  against the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in front of a statue bearing his likeness Aug. 13, 2005, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Protesters attend a rally against the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in front of a statue bearing his likeness on Aug. 13, 2005, in Memphis, Tennessee. The statue was removed last week. Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

The statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had stood in Memphis for more than a century—and inspired protest for decades—when Bruce McMullen, the city attorney who has sought for two years to find a legal way to rid the city of this monument to the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, began to feel a sense of urgency.

In the fall, as Memphis pressed the case for removal with the Tennessee Historical Commission, a state group that must approve any changes to public monuments, McMullen felt a drop-dead date inching closer. April 4, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the occasion for a citywide commemoration. Forrest, and a nearby statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis—erected in 1964, the same year as the passage of the Civil Rights Act—had to be gone by then.

That reason for haste was joined by another: the January return of the Tennessee state Legislature, a mostly white body that for the past five years has successfully outflanked this mostly black city’s drive to unseat Davis and Forrest. In the new year, McMullen worried, Nashville would tighten the language to make it all but illegal to take down the statues. Its most recent effort, the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016, modified an eponymous 2013 law to prohibit the unauthorized “removal, renaming, relocation, alteration, rededication, or otherwise disturbing or alteration” of any historic monument located on public property.

Public being the operative word.

On Dec. 20, Memphis sold for a token sum the two parks containing the two statues to a newly created nonprofit called Greenspace, headed by Van Turner, a county commissioner of Shelby County, which includes Memphis. The statues were removed that night. The city footed the bill for security; Greenspace paid for their careful removal and storage, in an undisclosed location. “You can’t drop one,” McMullen said. “There will be a war if you drop one.”

And so Memphis joined a list of cities, including Baltimore and New Orleans, that have removed confederate monuments since the deadly rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, once again drew attention to their racist symbolism.

The wrangling over the statues in Memphis, though, also illustrates the more common plight that cities seeking to dismantle Confederate tributes undergo: a race to outmaneuver conservative state governments dedicated to preserving them.

In some ways, this reflects a broader trend: Progressive cities whose ambitions, from plastic bag bans to minimum wage hikes, have been overruled by their states. In most cases, those statehouses say they are pursuing a “uniform regulatory environment.” When it comes to statues, though, there is no such pretense to disguise a conflict that is simply over power, in which gestures of white supremacy, some made as recently as the 1960s, are defended as inviolable historical artifacts. (Nate DiMeo’s “Notes on an Imagined Plaque” on the podcast 99% Invisible movingly debunks this claim.)

Charlottesville, for example, has wound up in a standoff with Confederate heritage groups who have sued to ensure the city does not remove its statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which is protected by a 1998 state law on war memorials. Birmingham, Alabama—which previously sued the state over legislative pre-emption of its minimum wage law—was forbidden by a similar state statute to take down an enormous Confederate-memorial obelisk. When Mayor William Bell instead obscured it behind a black plywood fence, the Alabama attorney general filed suit. (The situation is unresolved.) Similar pre-emption laws barring the removal of these monuments are in place in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. Several of the laws have been passed in the past five years.

Memphis first sparred with the state over the names of Confederate, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest parks, which were rechristened in 2013 as Memphis, Mississippi River, and Health Sciences parks, respectively. In that instance, the City Council rushed to approve the name changes just as the state was considering a bill to pre-empt them, one that made reference to the “War Between the States,” a popular Southern term for the Civil War. After the 2015 massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to move the Forrest statue. The Tennessee Historic Commission overruled it.

Even as Memphis continued to seek a waiver from the THC to take the statues down, the city put a plan into motion. In October, the council passed an innocuous-looking bill that permitted the sale of parkland to a nonprofit for less than market value, provided the space was maintained as a park. Shortly afterward, the nonprofit Greenspace was incorporated and began raising money. By December, Greenspace had collected $250,000 in private donations, Turner said. This reflected both the support of activists and of the Memphis business elite, whose anonymous donations helped cover the $88,000 needed to safely remove, transport, and store Davis and Forrest last week, as well as the efforts of its five-person board, which is made up of locals.

The opposition was furious. A flurry of nasty comments greeted the mayor’s Merry Christmas Facebook post. Doug Jones, the lawyer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Greenspace was a “sham” and the whole scheme “bordered on anarchy.” A Tennessee leader of that group criticized the city for an illegal “behind the scenes plan.” Tennessee House Majority Leader Glen Casada and caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, both Republicans, said they would launch an investigation. The decision, they said in a statement, “completely violates both the spirit and intent of state law in protecting Tennessee history.”

McMullen, the city attorney, said it had all been open and public. “The details of my legal strategy, I didn’t broadcast that to everyone,” he noted. “But I was honest in the press that we’re going to pursue every legal channel to get this removed. Did I sit down and say, ‘Here’s a lawful way to do it that hasn’t been closed off by the Legislature?’ No, I did not say that to the press. But I was in charge of getting these statues down legally, and I was going to look at every legal method to do it.”

Privatizing two prominent parks seemed like kooky recourse, but there was some poetic justice in the act. Private actors have long been intertwined with the fate of the city’s public spaces; the statues themselves were funded or fundraised by private Confederate heritage groups. Additionally, city governments often used eminent domain or privatization to circumvent civil rights law and maintain segregation. In the 1950s, as the historian Kevin Kruse recounts in White Flight, cities sometimes privatized parks to preserve segregated spaces. At the same time, planners used eminent domain to racist ends, seizing private land to prevent integration. In his book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein tells the story of a developer in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Illinois, who tried to build an integrated housing project. The park district condemned the plots for parkland.

In Memphis, the issue has more resonance still: In 1963, two thirds of the city’s playgrounds, community centers, and golf courses were whites-only (a number then proportional to the city’s white population, to fulfill a perverted idea of Jim Crow justice). Nine years after Brown v. Board, a black plaintiff challenged this policy—the city had said it would integrate the facilities by 1971—and the Supreme Court had to order the immediate desegregation of the city’s parks. The next year, donors raised enough money to erect the Davis statue on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

For Greenspace, which will now maintain the two parks on the city’s behalf, one thorny issue remains: Forrest and his wife are still buried at Health Sciences Park, where their bodies were transferred from nearby Elmwood Cemetery in 1905 to accompany the new statue. “It was to make a statement, and it was to make a racist statement,” Turner, the Greenspace director and county commissioner, said of the 1905 dedication. “To be historically accurate? Honoring the wishes of Mr. Forrest and his wife to be buried at Elmwood Cemetery would be historically accurate.”

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