NASHVILLE — This week could mark Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest's final charge with a state panel scheduled to vote on whether to give final approval to removing the long-controversial 44-inch bust of the untutored military genius, former slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader from its perch of honor inside Tennessee's Capitol.
The removal effort — it's led by Republican Gov. Bill Lee — is on the agenda of the seven-member State Building Commission's Thursday meeting and could result in a rare appearance at the meeting by the governor himself. Lee is the SBC's chair, but like his predecessors rarely attends. At most meetings, members approve building construction projects, select architects and engineers, approve sales and purchases of state property and take similar actions.
If approved, the action would remove the Capitol's second-floor bust of Forrest from its niche outside the Senate and House chambers, relocating it to the Tennessee State Museum to provide the controversial Forrest more appropriate historical context. The bust has been in the Capitol since 1978 and has generated protests and sometimes arrests ever since. That has accelerated in recent years and more so in the past year or so during the Black Lives Matter movement. But many Republican lawmakers, who gained full control of the General Assembly 11 years ago, have opposed the bust's removal.
As part of an attempted 2020 compromise by the State Capitol Commission, struck by then-Comptroller Justin Wilson, the busts of two other Tennesseans, Union Admiral David Farragut and U.S. Admiral Albert Gleaves, who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I, would be relocated to the museum as well.
It would appear that Lee has the votes for removal with both the governor and and his finance commissioner, Butch Eley, having votes. So do Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Treasurer David Lillard, both Republicans who voted for removal in 2020 as members of the State Capitol Commission where then-Comptroller Justin Wilson forged the compromise adding Farragut and Gleaves' busts to the Forrest-relocation plan.
In Tennessee, however, it's never been entirely safe to count out Forrest, whose military tactics continue to be studied today. While Forrest has his admirers, critics assail him over his pre-Civil War career selling enslaved Blacks and the infamous 1864 Fort Pillow massacre of Black union troops by Confederate soldiers under his command in West Tennessee. At best, some historians say, Forrest lost control of his troops. And then there's Forrest's early Klan involvement before he ordered the hate group dissolved amid its attacks and killings of Blacks.
Lee later replaced most Tennessee Commission members who had previously opposed the bust's removal. The re-fashioned panel approved the removal in March on a 25-1 vote.
Expected to oppose the Forrest bust's removal are Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who both serve on the State Building Commission.
McNally and Sexton pointed to a provision in state law and argued last year and into this year that Lee had not followed proper procedure after the removal plan was approved by the State Capitol Commission. Instead of going straight to the Historical Commission, it should have gone before the State Building Commission, the speakers argued.
The speakers then sought a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who said in an opinion that competing sections of state law supported both sides' cases. Thus, final action on removal is now before the SBC this week.
In a statement to the Times Free Press over the weekend, Lee press secretary Casey Black said "this final step will ensure there is no room for doubt in the process. The goal has not changed, and guidance on next steps will be provided at the end of next week."
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Black Chattanooga Democrat, favors removal, saying that for him the bust 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."
Hargett was traveling in rural West Tennessee late last week and could not be reached for comment on whether he still backs removal. Lillard's office did not respond to the Times Free Press inquiry.
Wilson, who retired in January, was replaced by his top deputy, Jason Mumpower, a former House Republican leader.
Mumpower said in a statement that "based on a motion authored by my predecessor, Comptroller Emeritus Justin P. Wilson, the State Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission have previously agreed that the historical significance of these busts can be better reflected through display at the State Museum."
Asked whether he thought the State Building Commission likely would approve the bust's removal given Lillard and Hargett's previous stance, McNally said, "Well, I never bet on what's going to pass and what's not, or who is going to vote which way. But here you probably have a pretty good assessment of the situation."
One of McNally's mentors in his early years in the Senate was then-Finance Committee Chairman Douglas Henry, a Nashville Democrat who was a key figure in getting the Forrest bust installed along with the support of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. McNally replaced Henry as chairman when Republicans took over the chamber in 2009, but the two remained close.
Sexton said, "I'm not whipping votes, I'm not counting votes. We'll be there, I'll be chairing the committee unless the governor's there I guess. I'm not sure if he's going to be in attendance or not since he's the actual chair of the building commission. And then we'll go from there. We'll see whatever the vote is and whatever happens, happens."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
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