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A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Upset by the Tennessee Historical Commission's March 8 vote to remove the state Capitol's bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, some GOP legislators are pushing to cancel appointments of all 29 commissioners on the panel — members who were mostly named by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

Instead, the reconstituted commission would be reduced to 12 members, and Lee would have four picks. Fellow Republicans Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton would also get four appointments each.

Senate Government Operations Committee members last week voted 5-4 to give Senate Bill 600 a "positive" recommendation, signaling support for the commission changes. Sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, the bill says the current 29-person board's membership would be "vacated" and replaced with the 12 new appointees.

"In our culture today, it seems there is a desire to cancel history, cancel culture, cancel narratives that are just based on fact. I think that that's a dangerous precedent," said Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, in supporting the overhaul.

McNally and Sexton have opposed the removal of the bust of Forrest, who after the war became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The speakers are still awaiting a response to their request for a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery on whether the removal question should have to come before the State Building Commission. Slatery, however, could bow out rather than offer his office's legal view of a dispute between two branches of government.

With the addition of new commission appointees, several of them Black members named by Lee in recent months, the Historical Commission at Lee's urging voted 25-1 to remove the bust of Forrest, a pre-Civil War slave trader who made his fortune selling enslaved Black people before later rising to prominence as a military cavalry general.

Since the massive bronze bust's 1978 installment in an alcove on the Capitol's second floor outside the House and Senate chambers, it has been the site of numerous protests by Black and white Tennesseans. They cite among other things Forrest's early KKK role — he later tried to dissolve the terror group — as well as the infamous Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee in which Black soldiers fighting with Union troops were massacred. At the least, some experts and historians have said, Forrest lost control of his troops.

(READ MORE: George Floyd's death prompted few changes at Tennessee Capitol)

Hensley said lawmakers should have "an equal say" on the bust matter, adding that would occur with the speakers having four appointees apiece on the reformulated 12-member board, as envisioned in his bill.

Eric Mayor, a legislative liaison to the governor, told senators that Lee opposes the bill — among other reasons, because it would remove 29 "excellent and qualified" members.

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Text of SB600 - Bill would overhaul Tennessee Historical Commission

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Mayor said the bill eliminates qualifications for service on the panel including having African American and Native American members along with experts on history. Sweeping everyone out would undercut "institutional knowledge," said Mayor, who called slashing the commission from 29 to 12 members "very concerning to the governor."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, a supporter of the original 2013 Heritage Protection Act which sought to protect historical monuments and statues, said the law and its later updates in 2016 and 2018 were intended to make it "arduous" to remove the monuments.

"I think we already have a process that is tough, and I believe it should be tough to get a monument moved," Bell said. "That's the process that we created for removing a monument."

Bell questioned casting out current commissioners over their vote, wondering aloud if "every time we get a decision about a monument or a statue that we don't like, then we want to come back and change it again? If we want to put it in our hands, then let's just do a bill to do away with it completely and let the legislature vote on it."

Hensley said, "I don't think any board or commission should be completely filled by the governor's recommendations. We as a legislature are a co-equal branch of government and should have a say."

The House version of the measure, House Bill 1277, is to be heard Tuesday in the Departments and Agencies Subcommittee. It is sponsored by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge.

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McIntyre letter

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'Boy Hero'

The Historical Commission has an executive director, Patrick McIntyre, but the bill creates a new position of "state historical director" and designates the new historical director instead of McIntyre as the "designated keeper of the Tennessee register of historic places."

The executive director has become the target of Hensley's ire with the senator citing an Oct. 23, 2020, letter McIntyre wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding the state's Sam Davis Home, already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hensley charged that McIntyre in the letter "cast aspersions" on Davis, a youthful Confederate spy who was caught by Union troops carrying sensitive military documents. Davis refused to divulge the source and was hanged as a spy by Union troops. He later became known as the "boy hero." A statue of Davis is located on the Capitol's grounds.

In his letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, McIntyre said the Sam Davis House property remained significant for reasons including "its early 20th century preservation and use as a historic site perpetuating the Lost Cause interpretation, a significant development in the history of American Commemoration.

"The Lost Cause narrative reinterpreted the Civil War as being fought over states' rights," McIntyre wrote. "Supporters minimized the impact of slavery and downplayed its violence, choosing instead to glorify and mythologize the Old South while celebrating the actions of prominent Confederate leaders and soldiers, often through the creation of monuments, shrines or the preservation of places related to those men. The myth of Sam Davis as a 'Boy Hero' who martyred himself for the Confederate cause developed within this context."

That had Hensley fuming.

"We have a statue of Sam Davis on the Capitol grounds honoring him as a hero because he would not give up the name of his friend," Hensley said. "And he was hung by the Union Army in Pulaski because he would not give up the name of his friend. And the present executive director just shows what he thinks is something saying that Sam Davis chose to martyr himself and nothing could be further from the truth. He was just trying to protect the name of his friend."

Asked about the legislation last week, Senate Speaker McNally, the lieutenant governor, said that "over the years we've tried on these boards to balance the legislative with the executive interest."

By reducing the 29-member board to 12 members, McNally said Hensley's bill establishes "a much easier board to work with. They've also given Speaker Sexton and I appointments to that board. I think overall it would be a good thing. I don't know if it's specifically related to the vote on the three statues that are up on the second floor, but that could be the motivation. But overall, not looking at the motivation, I think it's a good thing."

The reference to the three statutes was an allusion to a deal cut in 2020 by the State Capitol Commission. It called for removing the Forrest bust along with busts of two U.S. admirals from Tennessee, one of them being Union Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the other Admiral Albert Gleaves who served in the Spanish-American War and later in World War I.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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