The latest effort to convince officials to remove a Confederate statue in downtown Chattanooga failed Wednesday at the Hamilton County Commission.
During their regular voting meeting, commissioners voted 6-3 against removing the bust of Confederate Gen. A.P. Stewart from the county courthouse lawn on Georgia Avenue, which has been targeted for removal by a petition of more than 1,200 people.
"People are not afraid of bronze and granite, they're afraid of flesh and blood that's evil today," Commissioner Greg Martin said, responding to another commissioner's concerns that the statue might deter growth or progress in the county. "I don't think there's anything that's in stone or bronze anywhere — if it's the plaque that says Hamilton County, and Alexander Hamilton had his flaws, or if it's something else — that's impeding economic development."
Commissioners in favor of removing the statue considered several options for steps forward on Wednesday, but were shut down at every turn.
First, Commissioner Tim Boyd moved to form a committee to discuss the matter before making the decision.
Boyd had said previously he would only support removing the statue if all monuments were removed, including that of Stewart and of Cherokee Chief John Ross, who is credited as a founder of Chattanooga and was documented as a slave owner.
"I would like to amend this resolution to have the commission sponsor the creation of a coalition of stakeholders to review the appropriateness of any memorials or plaques having been placed on the courthouse grounds," Boyd said in an amendment that would have him and Commissioner Warren Mackey lead the coalition and make a determination by March 1, 2021.
Mackey, who was the original sponsor of the motion to remove the statue, agreed. But Martin and Commissioners Randy Fairbanks, Sabrena Smedley, Chester Bankston and Chair Chip Baker voted against prolonging the conversation. The same five also voted against a motion to delay the vote one week for further consideration.
Utimately, that group and Boyd voted against removal of the statue, while Commissioners David Sharpe, Warren Mackey and Katherlyn Geter voted in favor.
Sharpe said the decision reflected a lack of willingness to move forward and an obsession with power of one group over another.
"When I first ran for this position and then I was elected, I honestly believed that I could sit here on this body and advocate and argue persuasive, meaningful, heartfelt, sincere points, and be able to alter the outcome of a vote. And that was naive of me," Sharpe said, then quoting an adviser to George H. W. Bush.
"Lee Atwater said it best: it's all B.S.," Sharpe said, now raising his voice. "It's all about power, and it's wrong. And until we come to grips with that, and we speak openly and honestly about that, we're not going to be any better."
Sharpe shared his personal experience as a "young white boy in a small Southern town" who witnessed examples of white power and "said things" that he later "repented" for.
"When we grow up and become adults, it's time for us to make amends, admit our wrongdoings," he said.
Stewart's bust has been outside of the courthouse for just over a century, since the local Daughters of the Confederacy chapter that takes its name from Stewart helped install the statue in 1919, seven years after the courthouse was built, according to newspaper archives.
Stewart is said to have opposed slavery. But he fought for the Confederacy, taking issue with Northern states that were not enforcing fugitive slave laws that said Black Americans were considered property and had to be returned to slavery if they escaped to a free state, according to a 1999 biography of Stewart by Chattanooga attorney Sam Davis Elliott.
Stewart — who was originally from Rogersville, Tennessee — after the war became the chancellor of the University of Mississippi and later was the commissioner of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park for nearly 20 years before his death in 1908.
Confederate monuments across the South have been targeted by groups in support of racial justice for decades, with an increase in recent years due to the Black Lives Matter movement and the use of Confederate and other polarizing symbols by Dylann Roof, a white man who shot and killed eight people at a historically Black church in Charleston South Carolina in 2015.
A slightly different group of commissioners voted 6-2 to keep the statue in 2017, when the local NAACP chapter raised the issue most recently
The statue was vandalized during protests downtown against police brutality and racial injustice, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and was later restored.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.