As the clock ticked closer to 9:00 a.m. in Athens, Tennessee, on Friday, anticipation overflowed in a packed room at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum.
Three hours later, the Tennessee Historical Commission (THC) voted down Memphis’ waiver request to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue from a Memphis park.
Before the commission voted, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told the commission he is speaking on behalf of a very united Memphis that wants the statue removed.
“But first we must understand and come to terms with why this statue exists in the first place,” Strickland said, citing that the statue was put in its current location 40 years after the Civil War, just as Jim Crow laws were becoming active. “It's a monument to Jim Crow.”
Strickland concluded by adding that his administration has respected the legal process thus far and he asked that the commission would “respect the will of Memphis” and formally take up the waiver request.
However, Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesperson Lee Millar told the commission the picture that Strickland painted about Memphis’ consensus to remove the statue is not accurate. Thousands of Memphians say leave history alone, he said.
One of those Memphians is history teacher Elizabeth Adams, who told the commission that everyone is not in agreement with the mayor and city council.
“If you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it,” Adams said. “Next they’ll want to remove the crosses from our churches.”
Steven Stout, an attorney with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, advised the commission not to vote on the waiver until after the new THC rule-making process is completed and becomes effective, which could take until February.
“It would be a poor decision to not vote until the rules are adopted,” Stout said.
He added it is “practically impossible” to take a vote and provide reasoning for the vote without referencing the rules. This could present legal challenges in the future.
He says his counsel is aimed to make the commission “less vulnerable.”
But, after nearly two hours of hearing comments and discussion, commissioner Keith Norman of Memphis made a motion to vote on the waiver, which was seconded by Beverly Robertson, also of Memphis. Norman and Robertson are two of three African Americans on the commission.
Heeding legal counsel, the commission voted the waiver request down, but in a second motion voted to approve the city’s declaratory order to pursue an administrative law judge. The judge will decide if the 2013 law prohibiting the removal of war monuments is relevant to the Forrest statue.
This process is expected to be complete by November.
After today’s decisions by the THC, Strickland said he is still hopeful that the city will meet its goal of having the statue down by April 4, 2018.