NASHVILLE — A bill seeking to remove Confederate cavalry general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest from a list of people recognized with a day in their honor by the state of Tennessee narrowly passed a Tennessee House committee by one vote on Tuesday.
The measure, one of at least five bills or resolutions dealing in some way with Forrest, was approved by the Republican-led House Naming, Designating and Private Acts Committee. It seeks to do away with a state law that requires Tennessee governors to sign an annual proclamation declaring each July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.
For years, the panel has resisted efforts by Democrats to remove from the state Capitol a bust of Forrest — hailed by admirers as a self-taught military genius and condemned by critics for his command of rebel troops who killed some 200 former black slaves who served as Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
Forrest was also involved as a top leader in the early Ku Klux Klan, critics charge.
"Nathan Bedford Forrest in fact is still alive, and his teachings and his acts are all a part of every fabric of America that we live in today," Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, a black businesswoman who carried the bill, told committee members.
Lamar added, "Now, I don't know about you, but it breaks my heart when I had to sit there and watch for eight minutes and 46 seconds a man die with an officer's knee in his neck."
She was referring to George Floyd, an African American man whose death under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 was caught on videotape, sparking worldwide protests against police brutality.
Lamar told the panel that "you're requiring Tennesseans like myself to honor a man who murdered people like myself."
While Lamar carried the day in the committee, where Republicans have defended the former Civil War general as a part of Tennessee history, her bill appears to be a dead letter in the Senate.
"The bill was not put on notice in the Senate after recess," said Adam Kleinheider, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker. "It has not and likely will not appear on a committee calendar."
Kleinheider, however, said, "there is currently an administration bill that speaks to this issue. Lt. Governor McNally supports that bill as amended."
That bill is being sought by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who was startled to discover in his first year in office that he was required by law to sign an annual proclamation declaring July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. That bill has support for passage. There would still be a Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, but Lee wouldn't have to sign to a proclamation to authorize it.
Another measure, this one sponsored by House Republican Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn of Knoxville, who is white, was also approved. His resolution seeks to deal with the massive bronze bust of Forrest, which has been enshrined in an alcove since 1978 outside the House and Senate chamber and has drawn numerous protests over the years.
The measure states, "It is the sense of the General Assembly that the second floor of the State Capitol should be used as a space to recognize, through busts, statues and other methods, appropriate elected officials."
Forrest never held an elected government position.
There was an earlier fierce debate over a resolution sponsored by Rep. Rick Staples, a black Democrat from Knoxville, who had a resolution with a resolving clause that said, "We suggest that the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest be removed from the State Capitol and an appropriate tribute to a deserving Tennessean" replace it.
That prompted considerable discussion.
Rep. Jerry Sexton, a white Republican from Bean Station, said the "vast majority" of comments that "I've heard from my constituents is to leave our history alone, leave Nathan Bedford Forrest alone."
Sexton said, "We'll have and will continue to have problems in this country because we're human beings," then added, "We're not addressing the real problem ... who are we to decide what is ethical and what is right when we're killing millions of babies every year through abortion."
Staples' bill failed.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
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