An all-white House committee shot down two proposals from a black House member to remove the bust of slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee State Capitol.
Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville) brought his ideas
on removing the bust back to lawmakers after the Tennessee General Assembly broke earlier this year on COVID-19 concerns.
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Staples' original resolution sought to remove the bust of the KKK founder and replace with two other Tennesseans — Anne Davis
, who worked to establish Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and William F. Yardley
, the first African American to run for governor in Tennessee.
Staples broadened his original resolution with an amendment that would have allowed the bust to be of any Tennessean who worked for racial equality in the state.
The all-white House Naming, Designating, and Private Acts Committee debated the proposals for more than an hour. The debate touched on protests around the state focused on racial injustice, removing other busts and statues around the capitol building, and one lawmaker’s concern that Staples’ bill would exclude white lawmakers like her from having a bust in the capitol one day.
Staples said he was not trying to erase history, as many lawmakers have worried about over the hours and hours of debate on this topic. Instead, he said he was trying to celebrate an different figure that “touches us all in a positive way.”
“People are watching us right now,” Staples said. “Somebody said to me last week — a protestor at a peaceful rally. He said, ‘Sir, I respect you and I know what you’re saying. But some of the white folks you work with [meaning the other House members], I want them to know what I feel and where I’m at and what we’re trying to do and that we want change.”
Staples urged the committee members to be brave. He said those who lead on issues will sometimes “catch hell” but, as a lawmaker, “nobody can touch you,” and voting for his resolution would put them “on the right side of history.”
Debate on Staple’s proposals came after the committee approved Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn's (R-Knoxville) idea to designate the area where the Forrest bust now resides for only Tennessee lawmakers. Forrest was never an elected official. His idea will go before the State Capitol Commission during their next meeting.
“[Racial injustice] is a burning issue,” Dunn said. “Yes, it’s a focus today but with the news cycle, who knows where it’ll be next year.”
With that, Dunn said Staples' bill was too narrow to only include those who worked for racial equality in Tennessee. Staples said, “the issue is not just burning right now, it’s been burning for decades. It just boiled over right now.”
Crowds gathered in Health Sciences Park in Memphis around the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, prior to its removal.
Susan Lynne (R-Mt. Juliet) agreed with Dunn. She said Staples proposal would exclude “many other possible legislators or office holders that, maybe, didn’t meet those characteristics” for racial equality outlined in Staples resolution.
“I said, jokingly, to my seat mate here, ‘according to his resolution, we cold not have a bust of you or me,’” Lynne said. “Not that that would ever happen but we would be completely excluded.”
Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) has spoken bluntly for the removal of the bust in the past. He did the same during Tuesday’s committee hearing.
“I have had people tell me that when they look at that bust, it hurst them and it bothers them,” Mitchell began. “They say, if he was alive…he would want to kill them or want to sell them.
“If you’re so afraid of what might happen in the next election…and you do what you know to be reprehensibly wrong, you’re in the wrong business.
“(In the committee) we talk about the Bible. Then, open it up and read it sometime. Know right from wrong.
“How long do we need to have discussion on this bust that you all know needs to come down, before you’ll have enough political cover to hide your decision?”
Minutes before Nathan Bedford Forrest's statue was removed from Health Sciences Park
Off-floor cross-talk among members caused committee chairman John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) to threaten to take a recess “if we can’t continue in a civil manner” and wanted members to “not direct negative comment to other members.”
One of those members, apparently, was Andy Holt (R-Dresden), who said he was not searching for political cover on the issue.
“Nathan Bedford Forrest did awful, terrible things; we can all agree to that,” he said. There were a lot of things in his life he shouldn’t have done. But, selectively, that is the only portion of his life that are known in the mainstream, not about the changes in his life at the end.”
He said he was not making excuses for Forrest. But he said a body is already in place to decide whether or not he deserve a prominent place in the capitol building.
Holt continued to say members of the body have not addressed atrocities committed by Tennessee native and American Preisdent Andrew Jackson. Identical statues of Jackson stand on the capitol grounds in Nashville, the White House grounds, in Jackson Square in New Orleans, and Jacksonville, Florida.
Rep. Jason Hodges (D-Clarksville) said monuments shoudl be given to those “we celebrate and we’re not ashamed of.” He told Holt he’d be happy to vote for his bill to remove Jackson, too.
“I actually don’t want to remove him, either,” Holt said. “But what I see is a focus on one individual while one nearly maintains his historical innocence.”
Holt said Jackson committed atrocities on entire cultures and ethnicities that had not even been discussed before he brought them before the committee. He called for “intellectual honest” in speaking on Forrest and Jackson.
In the end, Staples’ broader proposal to honor someone who pushed racial equality in the state failed on a vote of 11 to 5. His original, more-narrow proposal, failed with the same vote tally.
Before the vote, he said while he was probably leaving without a win, he felt like “I’ve done my duty based on the outcry of Tennesseans.”