NASHVILLE - Efforts to remove a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from Tennessee's state Capitol could take a major step this week when a panel with powers to initiate the removal process is scheduled to meet.
The State Capitol Commission posted a notice Friday saying it will convene this Friday. The notice came one day after Gov. Bill Haslam renewed his call to remove the image of Forrest, a Tennessee native considered a brilliant Confederate military strategist but whose past as a slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader make him controversial.
Efforts to remove the bust from an alcove between the state House and Senate chambers reignited this month following a deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va.
White supremacist groups marched through the University of Virginia's campus to protest removal of a park's statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A female counter-demonstrator was killed and nearly 20 others injured when a man police say is a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd.
Haslam first called for removing the Forrest bust in 2015, after an avowed white supremacist massacred nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. Haslam renewed the call following a protest at Tennessee's Capitol by black and white demonstrators in the wake of the Charlottesville attack.
"This unfortunately won't be as quick as some would like it, including me," Haslam told reporters Thursday. "But that is the process. I am encouraging the Capitol Commission and [Tennessee] Historical Commission to meet as quickly as prudently possible."
Both panels must approve changes to statues, paintings and other historic artifacts at the state Capitol. The process starts with the State Capitol Commission, chaired by Larry Martin, Haslam's finance commissioner.
The Capitol Commission then said it would meet this Friday, but the notice didn't mention the reason.
Following inquiries by the Times Free Press on Sunday, new language was added to the notice, saying, "per the resolution of the Commission, a subcommittee was established for the purpose of developing a process for evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex and other processes regarding the management of the collection."
Asked whether the meeting was to initiate the removal of the Forrest bust, commission member Jack Johnson, a Republican state senator from Franklin, said Sunday he "had heard that's the reason we're meeting."
But he said he had not been in contact with his office to see if there had been any formal notification.
"I think we should be very careful about rushing to any kind of decision regarding these types of artifacts or monuments that are displayed in the Capitol," Johnson said. He said he will want to confer with Senate leadership and the Republican Caucus.
"We don't need to make these decisions based on current events," Johnson said, adding the "entire historical narrative" should be taken into account and there is a "need to be methodical and careful about what we're doing."
Another commission member, Davidson County Criminal Court clerk Howard Gentry, who is black, indicated he was more knowledgeable about the meeting but refused to discuss details.
Many of the Capitol Commission seats are held by Haslam Cabinet members or special appointees, but the much-larger state Historical Commission members also have to sign off by a two-thirds majority.
That margin was inserted in a bill passed by House Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, a Civil War re-enactor active in preservation issues, after Charleston's deadly shootings and efforts to remove a Forrest statue in Memphis. The commission blocked the Memphis City Council from taking down the statue.
McDaniel, of Parkers Crossroads, said Sunday he didn't know the matter would be coming before the Capitol Commission and he noted the panel "has to follow the law like any other government entity."
"I see him as one of Tennessee's outstanding military figures and that's the reason he was placed there," McDaniel said of the Forrest bust, noting he believes it should remain "until someone can give good reason why he shouldn't be there."
McDaniel said the reason for his law was to prevent situations such as what happened in Baltimore this month. He said the city commission there "acted in the dark of the night and removed four Confederate statutes without any public input."
Forrest's modern-day defenders say he renounced his KKK role before Congress and cite his post-Civil War speech to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a black group, calling for better relations and understanding between blacks and whites.
The controversy over Confederate memorials also has erupted in Chattanooga, where local NAACP leaders are urging removal of a statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart from the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn.
"We are going to ask [officials] to join us, so this will be more of a community effort versus an antagonistic, us-against-them kind of thing," chapter president Eleanor Woods told the Times Free Press.
Jim Ogden, staff historian for the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, told the Times Free Press the statue wasn't intended to glorify the Confederacy.
He said it honors Stewart's role as a historian, active community member and an original commissioner of the national military park, the first of its kind in the nation.
The statue does "acknowledge that he was a Confederate general, but if he had lived out his life in other places in Tennessee, I'm confident in saying there would not be a monument to him here in Chattanooga," Ogden said.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.
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