This story was updated at 6:57 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, with more information.
NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called Wednesday for moving the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a place of honor at the Capitol building to the state museum in order to provide more historical context to the likeness of the slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader.
Lee made the announcement in advance of the Thursday morning meeting of the State Capitol Commission, which is expected to take up the issue. The 12-member body shares authority with a second panel, the Tennessee Historical Commission, over busts, statues and paintings inside the Capitol.
"Forrest represents pain and suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans, and that pain is very real for our fellow Tennesseans," Lee told reporters during a news briefing.
The governor said the controversy over Forrest's bust, placed outside the House and Senate chambers in 1978, "has spurred a heated debate that began long before all of this national ruckus on monuments that we're seeing play out today."
A cavalry general whose military tactics continue to be studied today, 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 despite Union troops' attempts to surrender. Some argue Forrest allowed it to happen. Others defend him, saying the Confederate general lost control, and yet others deny the Union troops had sought to surrender.
Tennessee's long-standing controversy over the Forrest bust became turbocharged this spring after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, who died in Minneapolis police custody, triggering racial unrest nationwide as well as a debate about racism in American society. Confederate monuments have taken center stage in the debate across the South and in Washington, D.C.
While a number of those symbols have been removed, toppled or destroyed in recent weeks by either official action or impassioned demonstrators, Lee said the Capitol Commission process is far different than the "mob rule" that he believes has come into play in some instances.
The 12-member Capitol Commission, which rejected a similar effort by then-Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in 2017, is now comprised of seven Lee appointees, three of whom are Black.
At the same time, Republican Lee since Monday has withheld action on a bill passed last month by the GOP-run General Assembly to provide Republican leaders two more appointments to the Capitol Commission to block any move by the commission to remove the Forrest bust. The governor said he would not act on the bill prior to Thursday's State Capitol Commission meeting.
The current five legislative appointees on the commission include the state's three legislatively elected constitutional officers — Comptroller Justin Wilson, Treasurer David Lillard and Secretary of State Tre Hargett — as well as Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesboro. All have been expected to resist efforts to remove the Forrest bust.
Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, has said he opposes removal of the Forrest bust but is supportive of providing historical context at the current location. Lee said Wednesday the place to add context is the State Museum.
Nearly a year ago this week, the governor found himself engulfed by controversy after signing a legally required proclamation declaring June 13 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day" in Tennessee. Lee this year convinced fellow Republicans in the legislature to remove the requirement, so that the day of honor for Forrest takes effect with no signature required from the governor.
Lee told reporters that Forrest's bust is "not just another Confederate symbol. There are reasons that this particular bust, for 40 years, has stood above others and points to one of the most regretful and painful chapters of our history."
The governor noted that Forrest "is a renowned military tactician and the bust sits opposite a fellow Tennessean, a Union admiral and an esteemed military leader, David Farragut."
The governor said,, "In tandem, these two men represent the push and pull of our state's history and the conflict that forged so much of our identity and the role that we have had in striving to become a more perfect union."
Spotted after Lee's news conference outside the old state Supreme Court Chamber, Hargett told two reporters he had nothing to say regarding Lee's announcement but expected to speak Thursday at the State Capitol Commission meeting about the issue.
If Lee prevails on relocating the Forrest bust to the State Museum during Thursday's State Capitol Commission, he still would have to gain approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission, which is far from certain.
Known as "the Wizard of the Saddle," Forrest reportedly killed at least 30 men and had 29 horses shot out from underneath him during the Civil War, according to The Tennessean, which said he acknowledged the racial motivation for the war.
"If we ain't fightin' to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin' for?" Forrest said, according to the writings of historian Albert Castel, as quoted in The Tennessean.
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.
A July 6, 1875, account in The Memphis Appeal newspaper described Forrest speaking at what was characterized as a July 4-related "peace gathering" of Black residents 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."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.