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Overwhelming Power Poll: The State Should Move Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust to a Museum

Destroying the bust or keeping it on display in the state Capitol received little support

Memphis, TN  |  January 24, 2020 10:00am

Overwhelming Power Poll: The State Should Move Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust to a Museum article image

Memphis Power Poll members overwhelmingly favor removing the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest from its display in the state Capitol and placing it in a museum. Accompanying the bust, according to many Power Poll members, should be an explanation of the bust's history, making it a teachable moment for all.

The survey wasn't even close. To wit:

• 77% of those responding favored moving the bust to a museum, such as the Tennessee State Museum.

• 12% thought it should be "removed and placed in storage and not displayed."

• 10% voted to keep it where it is now on display, which is just outside the state House and Senate chambers.

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• The remaining 1%—all but ready to storm the barricades with explosives and do the deed themselves—said it should be "removed and destroyed."

Passions ran high on the issue, with some Memphis Power Poll members leaving comments in a spirited, yet high-minded, discussion that carefully weighed both sides of the issue. Some pointed out, on the one hand, the desire not to erase history and destroy the evidence of what we have been. But dominating the discussion was the need to remove the bust from a position of prominent, public display, given that Forrest was a Confederate General, slave trader, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and alleged participant in questionable killings of black, Union soldiers (i.e., the Fort Pillow Massacre).

Just about every Southern state has struggled mightily with how to handle its Confederate statues on display in its public spaces. In Nashville's Centennial Park, a statue of an exhausted Confederate soldier was recently defaced; in Memphis, of course, a statue of Forrest in a Memphis park was taken down and handed over to the Sons of Confederate Veterans after a court fight.

Adding fuel to the fire of the Forrest bust in the Capitol is that the statue is not just in a park, but in the building that houses our governor and legislature. That the bust is so vividly ensconsed in the state's most prominent repository of public power has upset many Tennesseans.

For years, countless state legislators and elected officials have defended the Forrest bust's display. But now, in what seems to be progress towards the state taking SOME kind of action, the government entity that has the power to remove it will meet in February and take up the issue. That entity—the Capitol Commission—is chaired by Stuart McWhorter, the state's Finance and Administration commissioner.

Leading up to this moment have been heightened calls from various legislators and African-American pastors favoring removal. Our governor, Bill Lee, has appointed two new members to the commission, both of whom are African-American. Generally speaking, if one were counting votes, removal advocates have gained higher ground. That said, opponents in the Legislature—many rural, Republican, and white—will almost certainly make their positions heard.

 

ABOUT THE POLL

The Power Poll is not a scientific poll, but it does a fine job of expressing what our city leaders in Memphis think. Composed of a myriad of our most prominent and influential citizens—elected officials, university presidents, non-profit heads, business CEOs, powerful members of the media, and more—the insights and opinions they offer up via Power Poll afford a fascinating glimpse into politics, civic initiatives, public policies under consideration, the city's economy, and more.

In this poll, 446 Power Poll members were surveyed. 77 voted, for a response rate of 17%. For a look at the Memphis Power Poll member list, click here.

 

BRIEF ANALYSIS

The author Tony Horwitz, who wrote often on the Civil War and the contemporary South (Confederates in the Attic, etc.), had, before his death not long ago, become the go-to source for reporters whenever the latest brouhaha over a Confederate monument's removal was erupting.

A verified political leftie, but committed historian with reverence for our past, he once said, "These are all individual judgment calls. You can't get rid of them all."

No, one cannot get rid of them all. We must weigh the pros and cons. And while it is tempting to dismiss all of this as paling in comparison to the other public challenges that face our state (healthcare, education, drug addiction, etc.), it is important to realize we are shaping history here. History is what we make of it, our public monuments are the outward-facing representation of that history, and how we deal with all of this in a collaborative way tells us who we are and where we want to go. In other words, this is actually very important stuff.

Some background...

The Forrest bust was unveiled in the state Capitol on Nov. 5, 1978. But prior to the unveiling, years of work had gone into memorializing the brutal and brilliant man with a statue. The public official at the forefront of creating the Forrest bust was state Sen. Douglas Henry, a courtly, wealthy, cultured Nashvillian who believed strongly in the notion of states' rights. Henry died in 2017.

As explained in a wonderful story written several years ago in the Nashville Scene by Cari Wade Gervin, Henry was able to marshal legislative approval for the bust as early as 1973, although no state funds were allocated for its creation. So, as Gervin points out, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) raised the necessary funding by selling signed prints of a portrait of Forrest. Once the money was raised, the SCV hired Loura Jane Baxendale as the sculptor. The Sunday before its unveiling, The Tennessean ran a praiseworthy article about the Forrest bust (headline: "Forrest in Bronze Immune to Time"), with no mention of his controversial background as a Klan founder or slave trader.

But the unveiling itself was attended by protesters. In fact, sporadic protests continued over the years and not just by people advocating its removal. Klansmen at one point held a press conference in front of the bust to discuss their preparations for a "race war."

Only a few years after the unveiling of the bust, Henry (who spoke numerous languages and could read both classical Greek and Latin) continued with his pro-Confederate, public art crusade. In the mid-'80s, he had the portrait of Tennessee's Reconstruction-era governor, Parson Brownlow, removed from the state Capitol and placed in the state Museum. The Republican and East Tennessean Brownlow favored rights for freed slaves and had opposed the Confederacy. Only one portrait of any of Tennessee's governors does not hang in the state Capitol today. And that is Brownlow's.

If there was a break in the dam with regard to removing Forrest's bust, it came after the shootings in Charleston in 2015, at which point both Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker called for the bust's removal from the Capitol. Later, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander similarly chimed in. Since then, a number of legislators have held their ground, arguing for the continued display of the bust outside their chambers. Steadily, though, removal has undeniably gained more support.

In this arena of public art and public symbols, which is where the debate over the Forrest bust resides, the outcome of what we decide to do will tell us a lot about ourselves. The making of history—more specifically, how we alter our understanding of the past and move ahead according to new norms—is often a stubborn process. But then, boom, something takes place in the mindset, and things move ahead with great speed and haste. Again, it is often art, sculpture, and memorials that make the public statement as to what we believe and think about our history. So here we are arguing over Forrest, all according to plan.

If Power Poll members are any indication, the political will is there to move the bust. The arguments, the debates, the emotions around this issue— they will dissipate in the end. It is likely that when and if the bust is removed, we will 10 years from now be amazed that there was such a big fuss to begin with. This is not because we erased history. This is because we changed our understanding and interpretation of it, and moved on.

We were challenged, in the nation's founding, to move on in ways that honor equality and freedom and espouse those virtues. We are doing that now actually. In so doing, we fulfill our obligations in the American experiment to arrive at a place ever more perfect.

Fun stuff, indeed. Important, also.

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