Last Wednesday night was a historical one for Memphis. Late in the afternoon, the city council passed a resolution selling two city parks to a recently created nonprofit group called Greenspace. Those two city parks just happened to have the city's two remaining Confederate war memorial statues standing in them: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis. Within minutes of Mayor Strickland's signing of the papers confirming the sale, the physical removal of the statues was underway.
Word spread quickly through social media, and crowds gathered to watch the first of the statues — that of Forrest and his horse in Health Sciences Park — get lifted off his pedestal and taken away to an undisclosed location. Shortly thereafter, Jefferson Davis' statue in Memphis Park downtown suffered the same fate.
The moves set off a spirited reaction locally and drew national attention from the likes of The New York Times, the Washington Post, and several national news networks. I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a Times reporter who was seeking to get, as reporters are wont to do, the "mood" of the city.
The mood — and reaction — hereabouts, to put it mildly, was mixed. A survey of comment sections on local media websites made that abundantly clear.
Many Memphians, including me, were proud of their city for standing up to the Tennessee Historical Commission, which had at first denied the city's request to take down the statues, then stone-walled and delayed further action with procedural moves. Their belief, and mine, is that the city — any city, really — should have the right to control its own parks, including the contents thereof. The city council, mayor, county commission, and even the governor had all expressed a similar opinion: They thought the city had a right to take down the statues. When the state continued to put sand in the gears of that process, the city found a creative work-around and did what it wanted — and honestly, what I suspect the majority of its citizens wanted.
Those opposing the removal of the statues resurrected the usual arguments, the most common one being: You're removing history.
This is true, in a sense. In taking down the Forrest statue, the city was removing a historic monument to the Jim Crow era, one that was erected half a century after the Civil War to intimidate the city's black residents. In taking down the Jefferson Davis statue, the city was removing "history" in the form of a statue that was erected in 1964, a century after the Civil War, at a time when the Civil Rights movement was riling the South. It was another middle finger to the city's African-American majority by the white power structure in place at the time.
So yeah, all those zillions of folks who got their history from walking past those two statues every day will have to settle for reading a book. Bummer. Meanwhile, the 65 percent of the city's residents who, when they went to these city parks, had to look at monuments honoring men who fought a war to keep them in human bondage, will no longer have to do so.
Another (very) common criticism was: "I guess now that the statues are taken down, all the city's crime and poverty problems will go away." No, they won't. But we're working on it. And those of us who are committed to this city — black and white and brown — are trying to pull together to lift Memphis, one step at a time. This city is rising and changing. Get behind it, or get out of the way.
I was also struck by the fact that many of the comments on various websites denigrating the city's decision came from people who don't live here, and/or have moved away. The tone was often something to the effect of: "I'm so glad I moved away from that place." To which I humbly respond: At least we agree on something.