Cooper: Lee's no-win bust dilemma

Cooper: Lee's no-win bust dilemma

January 8th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

An aging state Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, right, is shown during his final term in the Tennessee Senate.

Photo by Erik Schelzig

Intended or not, the question couldn't help but pigeonhole Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Lee.

What would he like to see done, he was asked in an interview on Grand Divisions, the USA Today Network-Tennessee politics podcast, with the state capitol bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Whatever Lee's answer, given still a couple of weeks before his inauguration, was likely to rile one group or another.

If he opined to leave the bust in place, he risked being thought of by many of the state's black residents as cut in the image of just another white Republican politician who cared nothing for the symbolism of slavery and the horrors the Klan later brought.

If he believed it ought to be moved, he chanced being perceived as as easy mark, a politician willing to be swayed by every ideological group that made the most noise or posed the worst threats.

Current Gov. Bill Haslam had expressed his feeling that the bust should be moved elsewhere, and a bill introduced in last year's legislative session by a Democratic representative suggested it be relocated to the Tennessee State Museum.

(In a 2010 nod to those displeased with its location, it had been moved from outside the doors of the state House to an area between the House and Senate.)

However, a little broader history is in order.

Democratic state Sen. Doug Henry requested the establishment of the Forrest bust in the 1970s, and it has had a place in the capitol since 1978. Henry, who wound up being the longest-serving member of the Tennessee legislature at his retirement, originally was elected a state representative in 1954. After being out of politics for about a decade, he was elected a state senator in 1970 and served until 2014.

Now, Henry little resembled a member of today's socialist-lite Democratic Party. He attended McCallie School, was a World War II veteran, had been a corporate attorney and was an opponent of abortion. Once, in order to vote on a marijuana decriminalization bill in the legislature, he smoked a joint outside the state in order to experience it.

The idea for the bust, according to Kenneth P'Pool, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who headed the Forrest bust committee in 1973 with Henry and Civil War expert Lanier Merritt, the idea grew out of a discussion of parallel figures with Henry.

"Once we were discussing Civil War history," he said in a 2017 email to the Tennessee Journal, "and the fact that Tennessee's two stars of naval history were honored in the hall of history, and that Tennessee's premier cavalry general should join them. There were no racist intentions or discussions, merely a desire to recognize three Tennesseans who are among the nation's most amazing military figures."

Nevertheless, the bust has been a source of friction since it was installed, blacks and other believing its presence called attention to Forrest, whose post-war involvement in the Klan was an anathema to them.

Interestingly, Henry knew of a portrait in the state capitol legislative library that was an anathema to him, and he engineered a plan in 1987 — 14 years after the Forrest bust was put in — to remove it. The offending portrait was that of Reconstruction Gov. William G. Brownlow, a onetime Methodist circuit rider whose vindictive term in the statehouse saw him support the denial of former Confederates the right to vote for 15 years after the war.

The West Nashville legislator felt such a portrait could still be exhibited in the Capitol, but it did not belong in a place of prominence beside portraits of Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James K. Polk, the three presidents from Tennessee. Ultimately, it was moved to — wait for it — the Tennessee State Museum.

Now back to Lee, who told the USA Today Network-Tennessee that he preferred the bust not be moved in order not to wipe out history, including "the history that we're not proud of."

The incoming governor's stance is the same one we've expressed over the moving of Confederate statues throughout the South. But as important as leaving them in place should have been — and many are now gone — just as important are plaques, signage or explanations delineating the good and the bad.

("While Forrest was an outstanding general," one might read, "he also became highly involved in an organization called the Ku Klux Klan, whose later purpose was to denigrate and even hurt the former slaves over whom the war was fought.")

In this case, it wouldn't bother us if the Forrest statue moved to the Tennessee State Museum, but if it stays at the Capitol it at least deserves additional signage that makes visitors aware of the subject's broader history, including — as Lee said — "the history that we're not proud of."

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