This story was updated Tuesday, March 9, 2021, at 7:03 p.m. with more information.
NASHVILLE — Tennessee Historical Commission members on Tuesday approved Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to remove the bust of Confederate general, slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol, although legislative leaders cast doubt on whether that will be the final word on the matter.
The 25-1 vote to move the Forrest bust to the Tennessee state museum came following a five-hour meeting in which commissioners heard comments from some 30 Tennesseans, most of whom urged removal of the bust.
Commissioners agreed with Lee's position that the Tennessee State Museum is a better place to house and provide more suitable historical context to Forrest. The bust has generated controversy since it was installed on the Capitol's second floor in 1978, in a prominent position outside the House and Senate chambers.
The lone no vote came from Joanne Cullom Moore, who said she never received the Historical Commission staff's email attachment of provisions under discussion.
The Historical Commission follows up on similar action taken last summer by the State Capitol Commission. But the controversy over the Forrest bust and for Lee, a Republican, may not end anytime soon, and attempts to learn from the Lee administration when or whether it plans to move the bust remained unclear Tuesday afternoon.
Adam Kleinheider, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, said following the vote that McNally "has always been clear his personal preference is that the bust remain and context be added. Regardless of his personal preference, he has always been adamant the law be followed. That does not appear to have happened here."
Kleinheider also noted there remains "a dispute over whether statute gives authority to the Legislature, rather than the Capitol Commission, on this matter. Lt. Gov. McNally and Speaker [Cameron] Sexton have requested an opinion from the attorney general on these questions. They await that guidance."
McNally and Sexton, R-Crossville, last month asked Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery for a formal legal opinion on whether Lee is acting legally to move the bust.
Earlier, Lee addressed Historical Commission members in a pre-recorded video.
"Forrest represents pain, suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans, and that pain is very real for our fellow Tennesseans as they walk the halls of our statehouse and evaluate how he could be one of just the nine busts elevated to a place of reverence," Lee said.
During the Civil War, troops under Forrest's 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.
Lee took pains to differentiate what he is seeking to do with the Forrest bust from the protests and demonstrations across the U.S. and in Tennessee last year in which a number of statues of Confederates and other figures were toppled.
Lee said his approach is not at all like the "destructive tide that swept the nation" in 2020. Lawmakers battled over various bills related to Forrest, Confederate and other monuments last year.
During their lengthy discussion and approval of various provisions in their approval document, Lee administration attorneys and Historical Commission members, many of them appointed by Lee, laid out a series of legal and policy justifications for removing the Forrest bust, noting the pain Black Tennesseans and others feel when seeing Forrest honored. They argued the museum would provide a more appropriate context.
As part of a deal approved last year by the Tennessee Capitol Commission, two other busts would also be removed to the state museum as well. Those are of Union Admiral David Glasgow Farragut of Tennessee, which also sits on the Capitol's second floor, as does another bust of U.S. Admiral Albert Gleaves, a decorated admiral and naval historian.
Defenders of Forrest say that, years later, he moderated his views and reconciled with Black Americans.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.