NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he favors removing the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, from Tennessee's state Capitol amid a growing uproar over Confederate symbols in the South.
The governor also told reporters he supports removing the Confederate battle flag from state-issued tags commemorating the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) group. But he emphasized neither is a decision he can make on his own.polls here 3262
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"If I'm choosing the Tennesseans that we're going to honor, and we're only going to honor a few in the state Capitol, I don't think I'd pick Nathan Bedford Forrest," Haslam told reporters of the general, who prior to the Civil War was a slave trader.
The background for all this is last week's shooting deaths of nine men and women in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. Charged with the deaths is a 21-year-old avowed white supremacist whose Internet postings display photos of him wrapped up in a Confederate flag.
Long-time criticisms of South Carolina lawmaker's refusal to take down the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the state Capitol erupted anew with various elected leaders saying change is necessary. And just as the flames of secession once spread from South Carolina across the South in 1860, this movement is, too, although the ultimate outcome remains to be seen.
It's also occurring under the watch of Republicans who these days rule the once-solidly Democratic South where Democrats ruled during secession, war, imposition of Jim Crow discriminatory laws, only to begin losing their grip to Republicans in the Civil Rights era.
Regarding Forrest, Haslam called it "a good opportunity for the Capitol Commission and the State Historical Commission to review and say who do we want there, what's the purpose, is it to commemorate from history, is it to honor — and let's use this as a chance to do that."
Haslam said he also supports removal of the Confederate battle flag emblem from state-issued SCV license plates.
"I do," he said. "I feel like the Confederate battle flag is something I think people are ready to see moved to museums."
It would require changing state law. According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, there are currently 2,057 registered SCV specialty plates.
Three years ago, Haslam signed into law a bill that created SCV specialty plates for motorcycles.
Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga fired off a letter Tuesday to the State Capitol Commission, asking members to look into moving Forrest's bust from the prominent second-floor Capitol perch it has occupied for years.
He referenced the "recent events" now driving change in Tennessee.facebook
McCormick's idea? Replace Forrest with a bust of a less controversial yet universally known Tennessean — frontiersman and one-time congressman Davy Crockett.
Among other things, Crockett opposed fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson's forced removal of Cherokees from the Southeast in the 1830s. He later died at the Alamo in Texans' struggle for independence from Mexico.
Put Forrest in a "more appropriate placement," McCormick said, "perhaps in a Civil War setting in which his military service can be put in the proper perspective."
Noting he had discussed the situation with several members of the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus, McCormick said Forrest's "military prowess and exploits in the Civil War have been well-documented.
"However," he added, "his background as a slave trader and a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan overshadows his contribution to our state's history in the minds of many."
Forrest later disassociated himself from the Reconstruction-era KKK.
In a part of the United States where noted Southern author William Faulkner once famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," not everyone is on board this train for change.
"I think it [Forrest's bust] is there for a historic purpose and it appears to me to be somewhat of a overreaching knee-jerk reaction to what happened with the deaths at the church, which is very sad and unfortunate," said House Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Lexington, a Civil War history buff and re-enactor who is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"It's a stretch in my mind that this results in demands to remove the bust of a great Tennessee historic figure," said McDaniel, who along with white and black colleagues put on a periodic House floor presentation on how the Civil War affected Tennesseans on all sides during the conflict's 150th anniversary.
McDaniel said the appropriate boards can recommend approval, "but, of course, the General Assembly can trump all of that and do what they want to. But the law is there for an appeal for removal. There's a process in the law."
That's a reference to a 2013 law McDaniel sponsored, the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. It says no statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, plaque, historic flag display, park and such "which has been erected for any historical military figure, historical military event, military organization, or military unit, and is located on public property, may be renamed or rededicated."
He introduced it because the city of Memphis was on the verge of changing the names of three city parks named after Confederate generals. City officials did a rush job and passed the changes before McDaniel's law was approved.
"There's always been rumblings out there and they seem to be louder now," McDaniel said.
Former state Rep. Joe Carr, a tea party conservative Republican who lost a GOP primary challenge last year to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he believes both Haslam and Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes "have jumped the gun here quite honestly and probably responded when it wasn't necessary to do so."
Carr added: "Sometimes, saying and doing nothing is the best course of action."
He said the atmosphere "reminds me of something Michelle Obama said back in 2008. She said Barack knows we're going to have to make sacrifices We're going to have to make sacrifices, we're going to have to change our traditions and our history."
He said he believes what "we're seeing is a world view by the Obama administration to change tradition, to change history and to change conversation to suit what they think America looks like regardless of the past."
"My family is a mixed racial family," said Carr, now a talk radio program host. "I feel that and I'm sensitive to it. But what I find hypocritical [is] jumping on the bandwagon to pull out those parts that are politically expedient. If we do it to Nathan Bedford Forrest, then let's do it to a [Andrew] Jackson."
Jackson owned African-American slaves. Jackson critics have raised that in arguing he be removed from the $20 bill in favor of a woman.
Haslam brought up the same point earlier with reporters.
"I would recommend the commission hear the input [on Forrest], and I think you start with the question, who do we want to honor? What's going to be the criteria? Its worth noting that you can get into difficult territory real quick. There will be some people who say I'm not sure I really like Andrew Jackson. You can keep going with any historical figure.
"Any person is going to have something that some people aren't going to like," Haslam added. "So the commission is going to have to think really hard about what the criteria is going to be."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
A previous version of this story said the Confederate flag flies over the S.C. state Capitol. In fact, it flies at a monument on the grounds.