NASHVILLE — Legislative Democrats called Friday for the immediate removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest — Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — from the Tennessee Capitol building after a required waiting period for the action expired earlier in the day.
Among them was Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, who said the Forrest bust should be removed as soon as possible, adding that for him it is has been a symbol of "harm and hurt for generations past. And as a body, we need to move beyond that. And I think the best route would be the removal of that bust."
Two senators also called for Forrest's bust to be removed, with Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis saying "our state Capitol should be a place that celebrates the values and causes that unite us as Tennesseans" and the Capitol was "never a place for Nathan Bedford Forrest, and now the day has come for us to finally remove his bust."
Sen. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, who has fought for years to remove the bust, said "if we cannot remove a memorial to an enslaver from our state Capitol, how can we begin to make progress on equitable school funding, fair policing and adequate health care for all people?"
Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who successfully pressed the relocation of the controversial massive bronze image before the Tennessee Historical Commission in March, is delaying action in apparent deference to both Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. Both speakers have opposed the removal of the bronze bust, and a May 15 legal opinion written by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery gave them ammunition to press for a delay.
McNally was a friend of the late Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, who successfully pushed to install the bust in 1978 on the Capitol's second floor outside the legislative chambers. McNally has argued the State Capitol Commission, which acted first on Lee's plan to remove, should have then sent it to the seven-member State Building Commission, on which both McNally and Sexton sit.
Lee attempted to maneuver around both speakers, bypassing the Building Commission and sending the issue straight to the Historical Commission, packed with new Lee appointees who approved removal on a 25-1 vote in the spring. Slatery, who had been asked earlier to issue a formal legal opinion, finally did, saying both sides had legitimate legal views of the situation.
Lee spokeswoman Casey Black said in a statement that "the statute provides that the Historical Commission's order does not become final for 120 days. So July 9 [Friday] is the earliest anything can happen. We are working to determine next steps and will provide updates accordingly."
She added: "Our plans have not changed."
Adam Kleinheider, McNally's spokesman, said in a statement that McNally's "understanding is that the item will appear" on the State Building Commission's July 22 meeting agenda.
"Lt. Gov. McNally continues to stand by his assertion that the State Building Commission must concur in the action of the State Capitol Commission as has consistently been done in the past in similar situations," Kleinheider said. "General Slatery's published opinion supports the assertion."
Lee is expected to have the upper hand in a Building Commission vote. The governor serves on the panel, as does his finance commissioner, Butch Eley.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett and David Lillard, both Republicans, voted in favor of removal when it came before the State Capitol Commission earlier.
Leading the charge was then-Comptroller Justin Wilson, also a Republican, who had been a friend of Henry's as well. Wilson has been replaced as comptroller by Jason Mumpower, also a Republican. It's unclear where Mumpower stands, but if Lee, Eley, Hargett and Lillard vote yes, the bust would be removed.
At this point, some think McNally is resigned to that outcome. But the speaker wants legislative prerogatives and his view of the lawful process to be followed.
The removal plan calls for moving the Forrest bust as well as those of Union Admiral David Farragut and U.S. Admiral Albert Gleaves to the state museum, where all three can be provided more historical context.
Forrest has long been a controversial figure. During the Civil War, troops under his command were involved in the infamous Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee during which a number of Black Union troops were killed as they sought to surrender. Forrest was condemned by many at the time and criticized for, at the very least, having lost control of his soldiers. He became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan but later abandoned the terror group amid its increasing violence.
Forrest's modern-day defenders note that the one-time KKK leader renounced his role before Congress. And they also cite his 1896 speech to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a Black group, at a Memphis gathering where he called for better relations and understanding between the races.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.