Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican who once championed the removal of a Confederate monument at the state Capitol, has done an about-face, ensuring symbols of racial inequality will stand tall in his cities.
Haslam last week took sides in the bitter skirmish over the removal of Confederate monuments when he signed an amendment to the Heritage Protection Act. The implementation of that law not only bolsters protection of crucibles of racial tension but also completely strips oversight from municipalities.
The amended act, which Haslam signed into law on May 21, gives absolute power over the monuments to the Tennessee Historical Commission. The group consists of 24 members appointed by the governor and five ex officio members. Among the commission are purported members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that’s kept the Confederate legacy alive for more than a century.
“Representatives and senators often recommend appointments, and they, in a very calculating move, stacked the deck with people who are empathizers with the Confederate monuments,” said Memphis pastor Keith Norman.
He claimed to know of at least two people on the commission who belong to pro-Confederate organizations.
“This is a turn from where [Haslam] was previously headed on this very critical matter,” Norman said. “It’s concerning.”
Patrick McIntyre Jr., executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, acknowledges just one dual membership.
“There is one member of whom I am aware who belongs to the Sons of Confederate Veterans: Judge David Tipton,” McIntyre told HuffPost.
Ursula Madden, chief communications officer for the Memphis mayor’s office, said city officials discovered dual memberships in 2016 when they applied for a waiver to remove Confederate statues in the city.
“We were aware that several Tennessee Historical Commission members are also members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans when we applied to the commission,” Madden wrote in an email to HuffPost.
James G. Patterson, commander of the Tennessee Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, applauded Haslam’s decision.
“I am very proud that Gov. Haslam signed the revised Heritage Preservation Act, which will prevent cities from making agenda-driven decisions,” Patterson told HuffPost.
Requests to Haslam’s office for comment were not returned as of late Wednesday.
It was ultimately the denial of Memphis’ application for a waiver that set the wheels in motion for the latest amendment to the Heritage Protection Act.
The original act, which was passed in 2013 and amended once before in 2016, required only that municipalities obtain a waiver from the state commission before disturbing a monument. However, it failed to consider properties on which the monuments stand.
Memphis legally circumvented the waiver requirement by transferring ownership of two city parks that memorials stood on. The nonprofit organization Memphis Greenspace purchased the properties and promptly removed the statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was associated with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.
The move angered many of the state’s lawmakers, the majority of whom are white, including Republican state Rep. Steve McDaniel, who made it clear the majority-black and Democratic city of Memphis had to be punished.
He took direct aim at the city by sponsoring a controversial amendment to a state appropriations bill. The amendment, which cut $250,000 in funds earmarked for the Memphis 2019 bicentennial celebration, passed in the House by a vote of 56-31.
“If you recall back in December, Memphis did something that removed historical markers in the city,” McDaniel said on the House floor in April. “It was the city of Memphis that did this and it was full knowing that it was not the will of the legislature.”
“Today is a demonstration that bad actions have bad consequences, and my only regret about this is it’s not in the tune of millions of dollars,” added GOP Rep. Andy Holt.
State Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) called the action “hateful” and “unkind.”
The amendment Haslam signed not only closes the legal loophole Memphis found but also comes with the provision that municipalities cannot sell or transfer ownership of memorials without a waiver. Any one municipality that violates the law will become ineligible to receive grants administered by the Historical Commission and the state Department of Economic and Community Development for five years.
“This law takes the authority out of governing counsels and elected officials,” Norman said. “There’s no question that they’re playing to a white base here. We should not have members of agencies or organizations with an agenda voting on whether the monuments should stay. I’m a member of the NAACP, but if there was an act or an article involving the NAACP, I would recuse myself from voting.”
Patterson said it’s “absurd to think or even suggest” that pro-Confederate heritage organizations should not be able to serve on the commission.
“It would be dangerous to eliminate people from the commission because of organizations that they are affiliated with,” he said.
The movement to remove Confederate monuments in cities across the United States began in earnest in 2015, after a white nationalist killed nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina. Momentum grew in August 2017, when a man allegedly linked to white supremacist groups rammed his car into a crowd of people protesting a white supremacist rally that was held in defense of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia. One person was killed, and 19 others were injured.
Those who want to preserve monuments to the Confederacy claim they’re emblems of heritage and regional pride.
“These monuments were placed many years after the war was over,” Patterson said. “They were placed to remember the soldiers and leaders from the community that fought to defend their homes and families.”
Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said the time frame in which many monuments were erected ― during opposition to Jim Crow-era policies of legalized segregation ― speaks to the intent behind them.
“They were put up in periods when there were advances of civil rights for blacks,” Beirich told HuffPost. “They were an in-your-face white supremacist reaction to that.”
None of the individuals HuffPost interviewed who support taking down Confederate monuments wants them destroyed. Instead, each suggested they be moved to more suitable locations.
“They are extremely offensive to people of color and people who do not view the Civil War as having been the war of northern aggression,” Beirich said. “It would be far better to get these off public lands and put them where they can be interpreted appropriately, according to the history.”
“People value history and what they believe to be records of history,” Norman said. “I’m not trying to erase or redact anyone’s history, but I’m very clear in that what’s best for our cities is to move them elsewhere.”
Patterson made it clear his organization has no interest in a compromise.
“They should all remain where they were originally placed,” he said, adding, “The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act ends the discussion.”
Even if the Tennessee Historical Commission issued a waiver in connection with the removal of a Confederate monument ― something Madden said the commission had not done since it was established in 1919 ― the newest amendment to the Heritage Protection Act includes yet another provision. It allows any entity, group or individual with an interest in a Confederate memorial to seek an injunction to preserve the memorial in question.
While emotions remain mixed, one thing is clear: Many Tennessee lawmakers aren’t yet ready to give up what some view as racist participation trophies.
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