Debate over Forrest bust churns on as State Capitol Commission delays decision

Andy Sher/Times Free Press The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust sits in an alcove at the Tennessee state Capitol building.

NASHVILLE - A decision on the fate of Forrest has been delayed until at least Oct. 1.

After multiple calls for the removal of a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from Tennessee's Capitol, a new five-member subcommittee of the State Capitol Commission was named Friday to develop a process for "evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol complex."

The subcommittee is scheduled to report back by Oct. 1.

photo A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, sits inside the Capitol in Nashville, Tenn.

The continuing debate over Forrest, meanwhile, spilled over into a legislative hallway following the meeting.

Regarded by some as a brilliant military strategist, Forrest's careers as a pre-Civil War slave trader and postwar leader of the original Ku Klux Klan resurfaced after last month's shooting deaths of nine black worshippers in South Carolina. Forrest later quit the KKK and called on the group to disband.

An avowed white supremacist who posed with Confederate flags has been charged in the Charleston slayings. And a number of Tennessee Republican leaders, including Gov. Bill Haslam and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, has said it's time to displace the bust.

During Friday's Capitol Commission meeting, panel members voted to reject a complaint filed by Elizabeth Coker of Rutherford County, a local historian who teaches classes at a Nashville-area university.

Coker said in an an email that the Forrest bust was paid for by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the commission hasn't confirmed who owns the statue nor consulted with the SCV or United Daughters of the Confederacy.

She also cited a "potential conflict of interest" for the appointed members of the Capitol Commission.

Thad Watkins, the commission's attorney, indicated the complaint was that some members were "biased and prejudiced" against Forrest. But Watkins said it is a matter of "well-established law" that government entities are presumed to be fair and impartial unless evidence can be produced to show otherwise.

"All that has been presented here is some vague reference," Watkins said.

A dozen or so supporters of the Forrest bust attended the packed hearing in Legislative Plaza. But the real debate began in the hallway afterward among pro-Forrest attendees and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, not a commission member, who is black.

Hardaway said the Confederacy was "treasonous" and Forrest was a "traitor" to the U.S.

Coker shot back, "Wrong! We had the legal right to secede, sir. Tennessee voted twice on it. The people voted."

One man told Hardaway, "Sir, if there hadn't been slavery, where would you be today? Africa!"

Don Scruggs, a member of the SCV's "headquarters camp" in Gallatin, said Forrest was not a "hatemonger."

He said Forrest had been a grand wizard of the original Klan but it was "a good organization when it started" and Forrest moved to shut it down "when it started doing what it shouldn't have been doing."

The first organization, Scruggs said, bears no resemblance to the 1960s Klan that fought the civil rights movement.

Hardaway also questioned whether Forrest was guilty of war crimes during a massacre of federal troops, most of them black soldiers, at Fort Pillow in West Tennessee.

Forrest's role in the Fort Pillow massacre has been fiercely debated, with some questioning whether the general directed the massacre himself or simply lost control of his men.

Commercial Appeal reporter Richard Locker contributed to this article.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.