Protesters rallied outside of the Tennessee state Capitol Wednesday after lawmakers voted to keep a bust of a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader on full display in the capitol, following arguments that removing it would erase history and could be offensive to some.
A House committee in Nashville voted 11 to 5 Tuesday to continue displaying the bronze bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, which has survived public protests and demands for its removal since it was erected in 1978.
Venita Lewis, who helped organize protests outside the Capitol this week, argued that keeping symbols of racism and white supremacy on public display does nothing but hurt current and future generations of Black people.
“Hell, I don’t want to be reminded that I was a slave. I don’t want to tell my children that,” Lewis, wearing a T-shirt reading “I will breathe,” told a crowd on Wednesday. “We are generating racism and hate for the next generation. It’s not fair to you, your children and your children’s children.”
Republican lawmakers argued that removing the bust wasn’t the solution and that it could open the door to other controversial monuments being torn down.
Rep. Jerry Sexton (R), who voted against the bust’s removal, appeared to excuse the state’s history of racism.
“It was not against the law to own slaves back then. Who knows, maybe some of us will be slaves one of these days. Laws change,” Sexton, who is white, told the legislative panel. “But what about the people that I represent, that it will offend them if we move this? They’ll be offended. They won’t like it. But it doesn’t seem to matter.”
He went on to question House Democrats’ understanding of ethics, since they support abortion.
“Who decides what is ethical, what is right, when we’re killing millions of babies every year in this country because of abortion,” Sexton said.
Rep. London Lamar, a Black Democrat who represents Memphis, said there is no complexity in this issue.
“Supporting Nathan Bedford Forrest is supporting racism. There is no grey area. There is no way around. You’re either for it or against it. Period,” she tweeted.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, another Black Democrat from Memphis, likened the public imagery of Forrest to the state displaying Nazi propaganda.
“What if every day you walked into the House or Senate chambers and you saw a bust of Hitler before you entered?” he posted on social media. “That sickness in the pit of your stomach that you’re feeling right now ... that’s what we feel everytime we (African Americans) enter the capitol of Tennessee.”
Forrest, the first grand wizard of the KKK, amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader prior to serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
There had been a push to honor Forrest in the Capitol as far back as 1901, according to the Nashville Scene. Talk of erecting a monument in his memory reportedly died down until the 1960s, when the civil rights movement inspired a new wave of Confederate monuments to be erected across the country.
State Democrats did have some success Wednesday in the passage of a bill that would eliminate the governor of having to continue to proclaim Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, an annual state holiday on July 13. Democrats had tried to eliminate the holiday altogether but were unsuccessful.
Late last month, a statue of the late Tennessee lawmaker and newspaper publisher Edward Carmack was toppled by anti-racism protesters in front of the state Capitol.
Carmack’s editorial work included endorsing the lynchings of Black men in Memphis who were trying to establish a grocery store in the late 1800s. When Black civil rights pioneer and newspaper writer Ida B. Wells spoke out against the lynchings, Carmack incited a mob against her and her newspaper office was destroyed. Carmack went on to become a successful politician and the statue of him was erected on the Capitol’s grounds in 1927, according to the Tennessee State Museum’s website.
Currently, the statue of him has been moved offsite to undergo repairs. It will then be returned to the Capitol, Fox 17 Nashville reported Monday.