Opinion » Letter From The Editor

The Circular Firing Squad

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It's really hard to believe that the mayor of Memphis would denounce "outside agitators" and make a stand against activists wanting to take down the city's confederate statues. I mean, how tone-deaf can you be?

I'm speaking, of course, of former Mayor Willie Herenton, who, in 2005, used that epithet to describe the Rev. Al Sharpton, who'd come to Memphis to support local activists who wanted to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues and rename the city parks where they stood.

Sharpton's response to Herenton: "You need outside agitators when you don't have enough inside agitators. Don't get mad at us for doing your job."

I think it's safe to say Memphis now has a sufficiency of "inside agitators." The persistent and vocal push to remove the Forrest and Davis statues has reached critical mass, having gained support from current Mayor Jim Strickland, the Memphis City Council, and even Governor Bill Haslam.

It's been a long time coming. I did a little casual research on the Flyer website and noted that the paper has been reporting on and editorializing about this issue since at least the mid-1990s, when we first began putting our content online.

There have always been those who took a stand against the statues, but for years their voices were buried by bureaucracy and stymied by local politics and well-organized and well-funded opposition from confederate supporters. No more.

It seems inevitable now: The statues will come down in Memphis, as they are coming down all over the country. The devil is in the details and the timing.

We would not have gotten to this point if not for people willing to take a stand; people willing to make other people uncomfortable; people willing to confront the status quo. Through their persistence and courage — and the inadvertant "help" of those using confederate symbols in conjunction with acts of terrorism and murder — more and more people are coming to realize that too often it's not "heritage" that's being served by these symbols and monuments — it's racism and tacit veneration of white supremacy and slavery. And more people are supporting the idea that decisions about such symbols should be made by local municipalities, and not subject to the whims of rural state legislators whose values are not those of most Memphians.

I think it's important at this juncture that the disparate forces moving to make the statues come down do all they can to avoid the "circular firing squad." The goal has been agreed to. The agenda is no longer in question. How and when we get there is what is still in dispute. But those with a mutual goal should avoid demonizing each other. That just muddies the water, weakens the process, and strengthens the opposition.

The mayor and the administration seem bent on taking the battle to court, challenging the Tennessee Historical Commission's 2016 ruling against the city. Activists want more immediate measures taken — ceding the park land to private conservancies, for example, or just removing the statues and dealing with the legal consequences afterward.

It would help if, instead of attacking each other and creating more divisiveness between folks who have a common stated goal, the various contingents could work together to find mutual ground, say, agree upon a date by which the statues must come down, one way or another. A good target, in my opinion, would be March, 2018, at the latest — prior to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in our city.

Let's all agitate in the same direction. We'll get there faster.


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