DAILY MEMPHIAN: Governor won’t budge on Forrest bust despite Cohen request

February 28, 2019
In The News

Gov. Bill Lee isn’t changing his stance on keeping the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the State Capitol in spite of a letter from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen urging him to seek its removal.

Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, followed up on a January letter to the first-year governor – after receiving no response – with a Feb. 22 letter in which he pointed toward Lee’s “stated regret” in participating in “Old South” activities and wearing Confederate uniforms while in the Kappa Alpha Fraternity at Auburn University.

“However, I also read you are still not in favor of removing Forrest’s bust from the State Capitol as you don’t want to ‘whitewash’ history. I appreciate your expressions of regret regarding the insensitivity of the KA’s glorification of the Confederacy and hope that you will consider the Forrest bust in the same light,” Cohen’s letter says.

Lee, in an interview Wednesday, said his office had read Cohen’s letter but that he is not changing his mind on the matter.

“I have said before and still believe what we need to do regarding Confederate monuments and the Forrest bust is not take away from history but add to it, and we will be looking at adding context to that in the Capitol,” Lee said. “As you know, that’s the Historical Commission and Capitol Commission’s ultimate decision. But I will be talking about adding context.”

The Capitol Commission, which controls what items are displayed in the Capitol, declined to remove the Forrest bust two years ago when then-Gov. Bill Haslam made the request.

Lee said the type of context to complement the Forrest bust would be determined by “the folks that give input on that” during the coming months.

Cohen’s letter points out most Civil War statues were erected during the 20th-century Jim Crow era when states were disenfranchising African-Americans and in the 1950s and ’60s as the civil rights movement took hold.

“They were designed to show white supremacy,” Cohen’s letter states.

He points out the Forrest bust was placed in the Capitol more than 100 years after the Civil War by Sen. Douglas Henry Jr., an “honorable gentleman whose reverence for the old South and the Confederacy was misplaced as it didn’t take into consideration the African American citizens of Tennessee whose ancestors were enslaved and who were eventually freed only because Forrest and his confederates lost the Civil War.”

Slaves were freed in the latter stages of the war by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Many of them enlisted in the Union Army.

Cohen’s letter notes the State Capitol is “traditionally” a place for statues and busts of people held in “high esteem.” Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a slave trader before the war and was the commanding general during the Fort Pillow massacre in which white and black Union troops were slaughtered after their commander refused to surrender.

“African Americans, including legislators who have served and who now serve in the Tennessee General Assembly, are met with a bust of the first grand wizard of the KKK in a place of pride in our most revered public building,” Cohen’s letter states. “Some of their ancestors may have even been bought or sold by Forrest himself. There is no ‘context’ which can account for the Forrest bust to be displayed in the State Capitol. It is an affront to all Tennesseans, particularly African Americans.”

Cohen’s letter suggests moving the Forrest bust to the new Tennessee State Museum and filling the open space with a “true Tennessee hero” such as Sequoya, a native Tennessean who was the father of the Cherokee syllabary for reading and writing. A Sequoya bust is on display in the Capitol’s Senate Library, Cohen said, after he, as a state senator, made the request to honor the achievements of Native Americans.

Another possible replacement would be a statue of Ida B. Wells, an African-American woman who crusaded against lynching while co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, Cohen’s letter says.

A white mob destroyed Wells’ office because of her investigative reporting. Continued threats forced her to move to Chicago, the letter says.

Wells’ life is highlighted in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture where her words are engraved, Cohen writes, and fit with his letter: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Cohen concludes that honoring Forrest in the State Capitol in 2019 “is just plain wrong” and that the bust “needs to go.”

“You could lead Tennessee into a new era by translating your stated regrets into action and making the Tennessee Capitol welcoming to all Tennesseans, not by whitewashing history, but by highlighting those Tennesseans who should be revered and whose contributions inspire rather than divide us,” the letter states.