Tennessee lawmakers vote to keep Nathan Bedford Forrest Day

Bill eliminates requirement for Gov. Bill Lee to sign a proclamation, but keeps the honor in place for the Confederate general and early KKK leader

A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee will continue to mark Nathan Bedford Forrest Day on July 13, but under a bill that won final approval from state lawmakers on Wednesday, Gov. Bill Lee will no longer be legally required to sign a proclamation designating the honor for the Confederate general and slave trader.

The measure was approved 22-6 by the state Senate despite efforts by Democrats, whose attempts to eliminate the recognition were quashed by GOP senators who passed the bill.

Previously approved by the House, the measure now goes to Lee, a Republican, who sought the legislation after his mandated signing of the Forrest proclamation during his first year in office last year made state and national news.

Debate over Forrest, whose huge bronze bust occupies a prominent perch outside the House and Senate chambers, has long been an issue in the legislature but it has accelerated in the midst of national protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died last month on a Minnesota sidewalk under the knee of a white police officer.

"I would just ask you to look at your hearts," said Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a black Nashville Democrat, as she urged Senate colleagues to delete Forrest from the state's lengthy list of people officially recognized with their own day.

While admired by some for his military tactical and strategic prowesss, Forrest was an early leader of the original Ku Klux Klan. And during the Civil War, troops under his command were involved in a massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow in West Tennessee.

Gilmore said Forrest "not only supported the institution of slavery, he slaughtered surrendered black soldiers."

Alluding to Forrest's bust on the state Capitol's second floor, which has triggered numerous protests in recent years and unsuccessful efforts to remove it, Gilmore said to Republicans, all of whom are white, "I would just ask you how you would feel if you had to walk by such a figure?"

Another black lawmaker earlier this year called Forrest a "domestic terrorist" and likened him to Adolf Hitler.

Republicans did not address the merits of honoring Forrest, instead limiting their comments to procedural issues.

"I respectfully suggest this isn't the vehicle to address that today," Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said, adding that lawmakers can address the days of recognition issue at a later time.

Johnson said the reason behind removing the requirement for Lee to sign the proclamation stems from separation of powers issues between the executive and legislative branches.

Gilmore's proposal was tabled on a 20-9 vote with Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voting for the tabling motion.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, questioned that, saying the bill "as originally filed did exactly what Sen. Gilmore tried to do. It would have elimiated the Nathan Bedford Forrest holiday in Tennessee. I don't understand and no explanation has been given why there has been a retreat from that commitment, that short attempt at leadership on this issue."

Instead, Yarbro said, "We have been given that this is a change about separation of powers. Every law in that green book [state code] is this body requiring the governor to execute laws, that's his job. And so we have taken something that started as an attempt to remove a stain on the state that the governor himself felt. Because after the first time he put out this proclamation there was an uproar across this country."

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a black Memphis Democrat, pleaded with GOP colleagues to eliminate official recognition of Forrest, saying he "made his fortune on selling black folks like we were tractors" and added "I want you to know how that feels." Referring to the massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, she said, "There is no honor in that."

But the bill easily passed with nearly all Republicans present but one, Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, voting for it.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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