Mayor A C Wharton last week gave voice to what he saw as the unspoken issue involved in the recently volatile issue of Forrest Park and the Memphis City Council's decision to rename it and two other downtown parks in view of pending state legislation to freeze the existing names.
In a conversation with reporters after speaking to the Memphis Rotary Club on February 12th, Wharton put the blame for the crisis on those — members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, though he did not name them — who in mid-2012 erected a bold new granite marker, emblazoned with "FORREST PARK" in caps, on the Union Avenue side of the Park.
"In foreign affairs, there is the language of détente," Wharton said. "Everybody knew the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest was over there. Some people loved it, some loathed it. We kind of said, 'We've got better things to go on. Let's just keep détente.' But détente was broken. My switchboard lit up with, 'Who put that [sign] out there?'"
The mayor said the new sign caught him by surprise. "I said, 'What are they talking about?'" He said he made a point of driving by the park, saw the sign, and thought it was "a big slap."
Even so, Wharton said, he took no direct hand in causing the sign to be removed — something done at the direction of city CAO George Little on grounds that, while Lee Millar of the SCV and the Shelby County Historical Society may have thought he had a go-ahead on placing the marker from former parks director Cindy Buchanan, no formal process was followed through to conclusion.
"It never reached me directly or even indirectly," the mayor said, though he acknowledged he thought "the right thing" had been done.
Wharton said that, before that council meeting, he had advised an unnamed council member to go slow on the issue but that the council's hand had evidently been forced by news of HB533, just introduced by state representative Steve McDaniel (R-Parker's Crossroads), that would have prohibited changing the names of a broad variety of parks and monuments commemorating the nation's battles, wars, or military personages.
Two days later saw a retrospective on the matter from Lee Harris, the city council member who had sponsored the previous week's fateful resolution to change the names of Forrest Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Confederate Park — to Health Sciences Park, Mississippi River Park, and Memphis Park, respectively.
Speaking to members of the Frayser Exchange Club on Thursday, Harris said he didn't think there was "room for compromise" on the parks issue, and he disputed the need for a commission, created by the council in response to a motion by Councilman Jim Strickland, to probe the issue of final names for the parks.
"The council has better things to do. At this point, we should just leave it alone and move on. All it does is create more controversy. I'm going to try to convince my colleagues to rethink that," Harris said. "My number-one job is not to be a historical caretaker for the city of Memphis. My number-one job is to bring people together. That issue had become divisive and controversial."
The best course for the city on the parks matter was to "put it in the rear-view mirror," Harris said. As for the prospect of alienating certain tourists, "We might lose a few Confederate dollars, lose a few Ku Klux Klan dollars, but I'm comfortable with that."