NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican lawmakers this week forced a delay on a House Democrat's effort to replace the state Capitol's prominently displayed bust of controversial Confederate cavalry general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Bill Lee hopes to charge through the GOP-led General Assembly with a bill of his own in regard to Forrest.
Introduced by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, on behalf of Lee, it would abolish a half-century-old Tennessee law requiring governors to sign an annual proclamation declaring July 13 as "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day."
Whether Lee can persuade fellow Republicans to approve the bill remains to be seen, underscoring the continuing controversy and divided opinions about Forrest in the Tennessean's home state 132 years after his death.
Considered a brilliant military tactician, Forrest has long been controversial. Under his command of Confederate troops, a massacre of federal troops, many of them black, occurred at Fort Pillow in West Tennessee. There were accounts it happened despite troops' attempt to surrender. Some argue Forrest allowed it to happen, others that he lost control of his troops.
According to multiple biographers, Forrest became the Ku Klux Klan's grand wizard not long after the group was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866. But he reportedly abandoned the KKK a year or so later and sought to disband it.
In 1868, Forrest was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. A handbill from that time, available on Cornell University's digital library website, blasts Forrest as a "notorious Rebel fighter guerrilla leader and infamous as the author of the Fort Pillow massacre."
According to a July 6, 1875, account in The Memphis Appeal newspaper, Forrest addressed what was described as a July 4-related "peace gathering" of blacks in Memphis. Noting some whites had been critical of his coming to the event, Forrest was quoted saying, "it has always been my motto to elevate every man — to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, wherever you are capable of going."
At Tuesday's House Naming, Designating, & Private Acts Committee meeting, Republicans unanimously voted to delay consideration of the bust-removal resolution sponsored by Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, until after Feb. 20. That's when the state Capitol Commission will hear pro-and-con comments over removal of Forrest's bust. The commission is not expected to vote on the issue at that time. And the Tennessee Historical Commission would also have to vote in favor of removing the bust.
During Tuesday's sometimes contentious committee debate, Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, said that while he admittedly is not "much of a historian — I don't know that we have facts about Nathan Bedford Forrest and what he did and what he didn't do."
Sexton said, "I think there's a very slippery slope we get on when we start naming some people as good and some people as bad, because we're all human beings that make mistakes."
The Republican, who once unsuccessfully sought to make the Bible the Tennessee government's official state book, said Forrest "has what he calls redemption and the things that he tried to say he had done was not right."
"No one in this room can say with assurety that our history is 100% correct," Sexton continued, citing testimony from a retired historian and two others last week, at least one of whom was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans group that has fought to retain the Forrest bust. "They gave a very good understanding [that] no one knows exactly what happened. We have no proof of it."
"It is PR, we all know that," Sexton added. "We know it's political correctness. And I can't be a part of something like that."
Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Memphis, objected, saying, "I feel no pressure of political correctness. I feel pressure of historical correctness — clearly the man was in charge of a military massacre."
Mitchell complained that "last week we had to listen to a recreation of a fictional history I'm not going to sit here this week and listen to history being rewritten. We know what this is about. You're either for the guy who took up arms against the US of A or you're not."
Gov. Lee and Forrest
During his first year in office last year, Lee found himself in a state and subsequently national flap after it became public he signed a little noticed but legally required resolution declaring July 13 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day" in Tennessee.
He told reporters he wanted to deal with the resolution before getting into the Forrest bust debate. On the resolution, the governor said, he wants to "encourage them to make a change there."
The resolution decree law was passed in 1969. Before that, Forrest's birthday had been a state holiday under a law passed in 1921, the centennial of Forrest's birth. Former Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, said that, like Lee, he was surprised he had to sign it.
Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said "the governor said last year he thinks the [proclamation signing] law should be changed, and you're seeing him take meaningful steps to do that with this bill."
Asked whether he anticipated any problems in winning approval for the administration's bill, Lamberth said, "I have no idea. We just filed all of the bills for the administration."
Noting "we're just at the jumping-off part for all of these bills," Lamberth said he's looking forward to the committee process on all Lee's proposals as to whether they get amended, killed or pass as introduced. He noted "some of them may not be successful. Who knows?"
As for the Forrest bill, Lamberth said, "we have put it out there for consideration. I think the governor has made it very clear that he was not comfortable signing that resolution last year."
Lamberth said, "I think we will have a healthy discussion this year as to whether that day is a day that needs to be honored in Tennessee, whether or not it should be required that the governor sign days of this kind in general. And then specifically in this one, should he be required [to sign something] that he personally would rather not sign."
It "may be, again, be a far-reaching discussion — kind of on the general topic of when the legislature creates days at whatever point in history in which they're honoring someone. Is it fair for us to require the governor at whatever point — to sign and honor those days whether or not that governor may agree or disagree with that decision? I think it's a much broader topic.
"This bill will set the stage for the debate on that," Lamberth added.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.