NASHVILLE — Although the state Historical Commission last week approved removing the Tennessee Capitol's bust of Confederate cavalry general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, don't count on the long-controversial bronze image departing any time soon.
It's a process expected to take at least four months. And that's if anything happens at all given the preliminary legal skirmishing among the state's top Republican elected officials — Gov. Bill Lee, who backs the bust's removal, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who have opposed removal.
At Lee's urging, Historical Commission members, many of them Lee appointees, voted 25-1 Tuesday to relocate the Forrest bust, placed back in 1978 outside the House and Senate chambers, to the Tennessee State Museum.
The move is intended to provide historical context about Forrest, whose military tactics are still studied but whose pre-Civil War career as a slave trader and post-war involvement with the Ku Klux Klan before attempting to disband the group have drawn criticism for well over a century.
"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," Lee told Historical Commission members before their vote in a recorded video message.
The commission has 30 days to put into writing its findings and grounds on which the decision was made, Lee press secretary Casey Black said.
"The effective date of the determination shall be not less than one hundred twenty (120) calendar days after notice of the commission's determination is posted on the web site of the commission," according to the law.
And then state law freezes everything in place for 120 days to permit a legal challenge to the move that many expect will occur.
McNally and Sexton argue that Lee officials ignored an important step, and they have formally requested a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery whether the Lee administration has proceeded legally.
"Lt. Governor McNally has always been clear his personal preference is that the bust remain and context be added," McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said. "Regardless of his personal preference, he has always been adamant the law be followed. That does not appear to have happened here."
Kleinheider said that "despite being advised by the two speakers that the State Building Commission must concur in the Capitol Commission's waiver request, the Historical Commission proceeded contrary to the law. Additionally, there is a dispute over whether statute gives authority to the Legislature, rather than the Capitol Commission, on this matter."
The seven-member State Building Commission is comprised of the governor, both speakers, the state finance commission and state comptroller, secretary of state and treasurer. The latter three are elected by the General Assembly.
Sexton told reporters last week the opinion request is to "make sure the process was being followed. We'll see how they answer or, if they can't answer, I think people are expecting litigation. So that may hamper what the attorney general may be able to do if he expects that."
Slatery has stated he is reluctant to issue legal advice to the officials he serves if it could result in a lawsuit.
Sexton said, "I have always been about following the process. The last thing you want to do is move through this big two-year-long process and realize you had a hiccup and you got to go back and start over again."
There's another issue, as well. That's another provision in state law that gives the House and Senate speakers control of the second floor where the chambers are.
Forrest's legacy includes the infamous Civil War massacre at Fort Pillow 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 has taken 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.
The governor has argued 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.
As part of a deal, two other busts would 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, pointing to a speech he made near the end of his life to Blacks in Memphis where he said "we were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers?"
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
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