Mayor proposes to deed over three downtown parks with Confederate associations.


"The buck stops here" is how Memphis mayor Willie Herenton began a keenly awaited press conference in the Hall of Mayors at City Hall Wednesday. That was his preamble to distancing the City of Memphis from any formal response to the current name-change controversy raging about three downtown parks that have associations with Confederate history.

By the time he had finished, the mayor seemed clearly, in the judgment of most news media present, to have passed that buck.

What he did, basically, was to propose deeding over Forrest Park to the neighboring University of Tennessee medical school and Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park to the Riverfront Development Corporation which now maintains them.

The mayor said the park issue had become "a distraction" and that the city should neither rename them nor associate itself with a recent proposal to disinter the remains of General Nathan Bedford Forrest from the park that bears his name.

"In the aftermath of the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in our city, we do not need another event that portrays Memphis nationally as a city still racially polarized and fighting the Civil War all over again," the mayor said. Herenton pointedly added that "digging up and moving graves or renaming parks is not the proper way of dealing with the issue," but just as pointedly left the door open for agencies other than city government to do just that.

"If somebody else wants to do it, that’s fine," he said, in response to repeated questioning on the point.

A century after Forrest Park became the resting place of Confederate Forrest, the battle has been joined again. Local black leaders have invited Rev. Al Sharpton to come to Memphis and lead a march through Confederate parks on August 13th. But Herenton made it clear he won’t be marching with "national hell-raisers" or "local hell-raisers," either.

"During the last decade, our city has made great strides in race relations, economic development, rebuilding neighborhoods and improving the quality of life for our diverse citizenry," Herenton said. "We will continue to build this city and not tear the city down with needless controversy."

Ironically, in light of the spreading controversy, Forrest Park, which Herenton says he recently learned was once a cemetery and may include other graves besides those of Forrest and his wife, is more debated than used. Herenton said he wants the City Council to consolidate and reinvent some of the city’s 187 public parks ecompassing 5,300 acres.

Also ironic, given the buffeting the mayor went on to take from skeptical reporters on the matter of buck-passing, was Herenton's assertion that the Forrest Park question was "a tough issue" and that some normally outspoken council members, including "some who want to be mayor," haf ducked it and were "shaking in their boots."

An unusually large crowd of about 50 people attended the press conference in the Hall of Mayors, where portraits of past mayors hang on the walls.

"See anyone who looks like me?" Herenton joked by way of establishing his own civil rights credentials. A final irony? Several of the bearded gentlemen in the portraits actually look like Nathan Bedford Forrest.

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