NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A decadeslong effort to remove a bust of a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader from the Tennessee Capitol cleared its final hurdle Thursday, with state leaders approving the final vote needed to allow the statue to be relocated to a museum.
The seven-member State Building Commission voted 5-2 to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust as well as the busts of two other Tennessee military leaders.
The Forrest bust was first installed at the Capitol in 1978 and has sparked protests and demonstrations ever since. Some have called for adding more historical context to the bust, but others, including Gov. Bill Lee recently, fought to have it moved to the state’s history museum.
Tennessee’s Black legislative caucus has been particularly vocal about how painful it has been to walk by the bust, displayed prominently between the House and Senate chamber, as they carry out their work each day.
“Much like this bust symbolizes the pain and suffering of slavery and terror, removing the likeness of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a place of honor in Tennessee’s Capitol is a symbol for much needed reconciliation,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Black lawmaker from Memphis and the Senate’s Democratic caucus chairwoman.
“No doubt we have work to do to achieve equality and justice for all people, but today’s vote shows that progress is possible,” she said.
Forrest was a Confederate cavalry general who amassed a fortune before the Civil War as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis. After the war, he was a leader of the Klan, which terrorized Black people as it sought to reverse Reconstruction efforts and restore white supremacy.
Earlier this year, Tennessee’s Historical Commission voted 25-1 to move the three busts just north of the Capitol building to the state’s museum, noting it was better equipped to furnish the appropriate historical context.
However, the Statehouse’s top Republican leaders argued that the bust could not be removed without approval from the State Building Commission. House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally both expressed disappointment with Thursday’s outcome.
“No one is arguing that Forrest is not a problematic figure. He is. But there is more to his story. His life eventually followed a redemptive arc which I hope is outlined in great detail in our state museum,” McNally said in a statement, adding that the vote signaled that some advocates will likely find another monument to “demand that we again kneel at the altar of political correctness.”
The GOP-controlled General Assembly has refused for years to advance legislation calling for the bust’s removal.
However, momentum shifted when Lee changed positions and called for moving the bust out of the Capitol in 2020 amid national outcry over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota. Floyd’s death sparked a new push to remove Confederate symbols, including the Forrest bust.
Lee’s position was markedly different than when he first came into elected office in 2018, arguing that “the Ku Klux Klan is a part of our history that we’re not proud of in Tennessee, and we need to be reminded of that and make certain that we don’t forget it. So I wouldn’t advocate to remove” the bust.