NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee says he expects Tennessee's Capitol Commission to meet soon to address the controversy over the state's prominent display of a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest which has generated repeated protests over the years.
Lee, a Republican who took office earlier this year, told reporters Thursday that since he has now appointed two new members of the commission, he expects them to discuss the bust of Forrest, a pre-Civil War slave trader who later became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
"I'm sure they will consider it," said Lee, who earlier this year suggested adding historical context to the massive bust now displayed in a wall niche located near the Senate and House chambers. "I've said before we need to have more conversation about that, and that conversation will happen when they do meet."
Critics want the bust removed while others have suggested rotating it out with other Tennessee historical figures or, as Lee has previously said, adding context. The bust was installed in 1978 and drew its first protest in 1979 by a group of black Tennesseans.
Protests have picked up steam in recent years and in 2019, a black demonstrator was arrested after he allegedly threw a cup of fluid — he says it was ice tea — at then-House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin.
Admired and still cited in military circles for strategy and tactics, Forrest has also been blamed for the infamous Fort Pillow massacre in which between 277 and 295 Union troops, most of them black, were killed as they sought to surrender, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia.
Forrest said he lost control. With regard to the KKK, he later said he had withdrawn from the group.
Tennessee's last official effort to remove Forrest's bust came in September 2017 from then-Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. It followed the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., after which a white supremacist was convicted for driving his car into a group of counter demonstrators, killing a woman counter protester and injuring others.
The State Capitol Commission at the time held a meeting where Haslam appointees advocated moving the bust to the Tennessee State Museum. The governor's finance commissioner and commission chairman Larry Martin argued that, fairly or unfairly, Forrest was a controversial and divisive figure.
But the 12-member commission batted down the effort in a 7-5 vote. State Comptroller Justin Wilson argued that because lawmakers in 1973 had called for a bust of Forrest to be placed in the Capitol, removal should be a decision made by current lawmakers since they traditionally are in charge of the second floor.
The Capitol Commission has only met once since then, in November 2018, evidently in conjunction with Lee's inauguration. It is not clear if the Forrest subject apparently came back up; there are no minutes of the November meeting because the panel hasn't met to approve them.
The panel is now chaired by Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, a Lee appointee who assumed office in January. He can call a meeting at any time.
Lee went through his own political firestorm involving Forrest last summer for his signing of a law in the 1970s. It mandates that all governors issue a proclamation honoring Forrest. Noting he had been surprised by the legal requirement, Lee said he would work to eliminate it.
Regarding the Capitol bust of Forrest, Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville said in a statement that "the governor has previously expressed a desire to have a conversation. As always, we are open to a discussion on any issue with the administration or any commission."
Noting that Lee has "also indicated he plans to call the Capitol Commission to convene," Sexton added that "the Capitol Commission has the authority to proceed on this issue without legislative approval."
Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, said McNally "has always been in favor of following the statutorily defined process on this issue. That process begins with the Capitol Commission."
Any change would have to follow directives of the Tennessee Heritage Act and also win approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission.
On Monday, Lee's office issued a news release announcing the governor appointed Knoxville talk radio show host Hallerin Hill and the Jackson Police Department's deputy chief, Tyreece Miller, to the 12-member panel. Both men are black.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
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