Opinion » Letter From The Editor

Into the Forrest

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On June 20th, a few hundred people gathered at Bruce Elementary School to discuss strategies for taking down Memphis' monuments to Confederate war heroes — specifically, the Jefferson Davis statue downtown and the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue near the University of Tennessee Memphis. The Memphis City Council has voted to remove the statues, but they have been stymied by a quickly enacted Tennessee law that forbids the removal of "war memorials" without state permission.

Forrest — the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — and his wife were disinterred from Elmwood Cemetery and re-buried under an equestrian statue in center-city Memphis in the early 20th century. The Jefferson Davis statue was put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1964, after an eight-year fund drive which netted $17,483 — the cost of erecting the statue.

I learned this information from a 2013 column by former Flyer columnist John Branston, whose report also contained this excerpt from the Memphis Press-Scimitar: "This is a matter of pride for Memphis," said Mrs. Harry Allen, leader of the fund drive. "Memphis is the only major city in the South that does not have a statue of this great man."

That's no longer the case. New Orleans recently took down its Confederate monuments. St. Louis is deconstructing its principal Confederate monument; it will be rebuilt and placed on private land. Arizona is considering removing its Civil War monuments from public land. All of that state's several monuments were erected between 1943 and 2001.

Why does Arizona — which had a nominal connection to the Civil War — have a bunch of Confederate monuments? You tell me. I suspect it's for the same reason you see Confederate flags flying in rural Pennsylvania and northern Missouri and central Idaho. Heritage.

Right.

Proponents for keeping the statues often say something along the lines of, "With all the problems the city of Memphis has, why are you people obsessed with taking down these statues?" To which I say, "With all of the problems the South has, why are you people so worried about keeping a few statues?"

The fact is, the South needs to rise again. The former states of the Confederacy lead the nation in divorce rates, teen pregnancy, opioid and meth addiction, poverty, sexually transmitted disease, suicide, and illiteracy. We suck up more federal funds than we contribute in taxes. In the face of these daunting problems, our state legislators spend their days obsessing over sex, gender, guns, tax breaks for their corporate benefactors and the wealthy, and instituting their neanderthal version of Christianity as the state religion.

So yes, we all have bigger issues than statues. But as relatively recent history has shown, putting up (and taking down) statues has more to do with the politics of the day than preserving heritage. Statues come and go based on the wishes of the majority and the vicissitudes of contemporary values. If the majority wants a statue taken down or put up, it will happen, eventually.

The biggest divide we're dealing with in Tennessee is not over the Civil War. It's rural interests and values versus urban issues and values. Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis are pushing for more progressive policies in the areas of labor and wages, immigration, gender and racial discrimination, education, and gun control. The legislature, which is controlled by a rural Republican majority, is pushing back at every turn, taking away powers that should rightfully belong to the cities — including, but not limited to, deciding what kind of statues the majority of its citizens might want in their parks.

That battle will be difficult. In the meantime, we should take a cue from the folks in Cooper-Young who raised money earlier this month to put up a statue of Johnny Cash. The state can't stop the citizens of Memphis from erecting statues, at least, not yet. So interested groups should do as the United Daughters of the Confederacy did: Start popping up statues congruent with our mostly non-commemorated heritage — Harriet Tubman, Maxine Smith, Benjamin Hooks. Lots of possibilities.

In the meantime, until they come down, I say we should just build walls around the Nathan B. Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues and charge admission, with the funds designated to the National Civil Rights Museum.

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