It's time to revise the Tennessee state law on proclamations the governor must sign designating days of special observances.
We suggest it not because we, like some, want to wipe out any vestiges of the Civil War that splintered our country and our state more than 155 years ago. No, we suggest it because the list of proclamations that must be signed is uneven in whom it honors and is unreasonably weighted toward the Confederate cause to which the state pledged its loyalty for five years of its 224-year history.
Currently, a law requires Tennessee's governor to sign proclamations designating days of special observance for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Civil War U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Tennessean U.S. President Andrew Jackson, Confederate Decoration Day, Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Veterans Day.
Let's examine these.
* Lee, Confederate commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and later general in chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, was not in Tennessee for any of the war's major battles. His tenuous tie to the state would be as the beloved leader of all Confederate forces.
* Lincoln was president during the Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate states and lived to see the end of the war before being assassinated. He is considered the greatest or one of the greatest U.S. presidents.
* Jackson was the country's seventh president and first from Tennessee. Although he wasn't born in the state, he lived here from about the age of 20. Once considered in the top pantheon of presidents, his Indian removal policies and the fact he was a slave holder has somewhat diminished his reputation.
* Confederate Decoration Day was set aside to memorialize the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. Tennessee is one of a handful of states who have such a holiday but the only one which officially has the specific name. It is observed June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.
* Forrest, a native son of the state, was a wealthy Memphis plantation owner and slave trader. Although he had no previous military training, he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private and eventually was promoted to lieutenant general, where he had a reputation as a military strategist. During the war, he ordered the massacre of hundreds of surrendered black soldiers at Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee, and after the war became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which used violence and threats of violence to harass blacks and keep them from voting. He later would order the dissolution of the KKK, withdraw his name from it and toward the end of his life denounce its violence and racism.
* Veterans Day was set aside in 1926 as Armistice Day to honor veterans of the recent world war (World War I). Many years later, it was changed to honor veterans of all wars and in 1954 was officially redesignated Veterans Day. It is celebrated Nov. 11, the day of the end of fighting in WWI.
Where are days to honor James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, the state's two other men who served as president of the United States? Why are Confederate Decoration Day and Veterans Day proclaimed and not Memorial Day? Why is a day to honor George Washington, the nation's first president, not here along with Lincoln? Does Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was born in Georgia, once passed over for a ministerial post in Chattanooga and famously slain in Memphis, rank? What about Davy Crockett, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Pearl, Alvin York, Bessie Smith or Dolly Parton, all natives of the Volunteer State? Do they belong?
Given the above, it seems mandatory the law needs re-examining. But, frankly, we don't want to add people to balance any observances or have so many on the list the designation becomes as meaningless as a participation trophy.
Gov. Bill Lee's office confirmed Friday it is working on legislation that would amend the bill. We hope it doesn't just eliminate Forrest, perhaps the most odious name on the list for his deeds and in spite of his later denunciations. We hope the list is discarded or completely redone. Certainly if the list is to proclaim special days honoring the state's most famous sons and daughters, it won't be Confederate-heavy.
Again, we're not of the ilk who believe statues, busts and memorials from the Civil War need to be hauled down and relegated to trash bins or the backrooms of museums. The Civil War, good and bad, is our history. Display that history, but display it not in a way that glorifies a lost cause but display it where observers can see for themselves both the positive and negative of a person's life.
With the observances and the memorials, we need to think like 21st-century Tennesseans who understand all our history and not like automatons who would destroy or celebrate a part of it.