Way back in January, before the coronavirus was a global pandemic, before anyone ever heard the name George Floyd, we suggested the state should rethink its list designating days of special observances.
On that list, among others, was a designated day — July 13 — honoring Civil War Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a Tennessee native, yes, but also a slave trader before the war, the commander who ordered the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee, during the war, and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war.
When Gov. Bill Lee's legislative package was announced earlier this year, a bill to remove Forrest's name from the list was included. But somewhere along the way, and for some reason — haste to end the session because of the COVID-19 pandemic? lack of desire to deal with the controversy? — the bill was amended.
What wound up being voted on by the state Senate Wednesday was a bill that would free the state governor from having to sign proclamations to designate those special days. In other words, any current and future governor won't have to get their hands dirty by signing a proclamation to honor Forrest or Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who was not in Tennessee for any of the war's major battles.
Legislators went out of their way to say their vote was procedural and not any vestige to venerate the glory days of the Old South. And since the House already had passed the bill, it will be sent on to Lee for his expected signature.
But senators had an opportunity Wednesday to make a tangible statement of "we hear you" to those who cry out in light of Floyd's death to wipe out any traces of racism that remain in today's America in a different bill that would have removed the Forrest day from the list.
That proposal was tabled, with the explanation that the bill that passed was dealing with separation of powers issues between the executive and legislative branches of state government, and that the list of special days could be dealt with at a different time.
It can be, and we hope it will be. After all, as we noted in January, the days of special observances list is rather uneven and currently includes days for Forrest, Lee, Civil War U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Tennessean U.S. President Andrew Jackson, Confederate Decoration Day and Veterans Day.
But days honoring the state's two other U.S. presidents, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, are nowhere to be found, nor is a day for George Washington, the nation's first president, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was slain in the state. And Memorial Day is not on the list.
We'd actually prefer fewer days rather than more, perhaps not honoring any individuals except those whose birthdays are already federal holidays. But we hope — now that any removal of a day honoring Forrest is apparently dead for the year — that a history commission or another body might take up the issue and present its findings to the governor and legislature for consideration in the 2021 session.
Nevertheless, we're saddened the procedural train could not be derailed Wednesday. Yes, it would have meant a bill that, if approved by the Senate, would have to be approved by the House. But it would have meant a great deal, especially, to black state legislators and black residents who want to know their concerns make an impact.
We see the special observance days as a completely different issue from removing busts and statues. With busts and statues, some of which have been in place for more than 100 years, the opportunity is available to offer context, to tell about an individual's time in American history when a battle was fought over slavery, when brother fought against brother and when part of the country seceded from the other.
It's evident, for instance, how little current activists who want to remove the bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart from the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn know about why the effigy is there. He was not a notable battlefield figure, never owned slaves, didn't believe in slavery, opposed Tennessee secession and acquired the nickname "Old Straight," likely for his moral uprightness.
He is where he is because he was the resident commissioner (the other being a former Union solider) who supervised road construction, the erection of towers and bridges, and the general engineering work of nearby Chickamauga Battlefield, which was established in the 1890s as a peacemaking project honoring veterans on both sides of the war.
Forrest is another matter.
Tennessee legislators gave the current and future governors a way to pass on honoring the former plantation owner, slave trader and KKK head Wednesday, but we hope they'll come back sooner rather than later and rid the state having such a designated day in the first place.