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Tennessee on Thursday voted to remove the bust of Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Capitol.
The bust of the KKK leader was first installed at the Capitol in 1978 and since then it has sparked protests and demonstrations. Forrest had amassed a fortune before the Civil War as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis, and after the war, he was a leader of the Klan, which terrorised Black people as it sought to reverse and restore white supremacy.
The seven-member State Building Commission voted 5-2 to remove the bust of Forrest, as well as that of two other Tennessee military leaders and relocate it.
While some people had sought addition or more historical context to the bust, many had favoured moving it to the state’s history museum, including Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee who, in 2020, supported the move.
The Black legislative caucus has been very vocal against it apart from highlighting how painful it has been to walk by the bust, which is displayed prominently between the House and Senate chamber.
Senator Raumesh Akbari, a Black lawmaker from Memphis and the Senate’s Democratic caucus chairwoman, said: “Much like this bust symbolises the pain and suffering of slavery and terror, removing the likeness of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a place of honour in Tennessee’s Capitol is a symbol for much needed reconciliation.”
“No doubt we have work to do to achieve equality and justice for all people, but today’s vote shows that progress is possible,” she said.
The vote by the State Building Commission follows the 25-1 vote by Tennessee’s Historical Commission, earlier this year, to move the three busts just north of the Capitol building to the state’s museum, noting it was better equipped to furnish the appropriate historical context.
But the Historical Commission’s vote was opposed by the Republican leaders who argued that the bust could not be removed without approval from the State Building Commission.
Good day here in Tennessee. A statue of the KKK’s first Grand Wizard is coming out of the Capitol after much public pressure from activists like @brotherjones_ and leaders like @GAHardaway & @RepLamar — . A little progress in a place that has a long way to go. pic.twitter.com/8u7Ev978bH
— Justin Kanew (@Kanew) July 22, 2021
Following the decision, Annika Brockschmidt, who is an author, tweeted: “The fact that the bust of the first ever KKK Grand Wizard was still on Display in the Tennessee Capitol in 2021 is baffling but not surprising.”
Justin Kanew, the founder of The Tennessee Holler, tweeted: “Good day here in Tennessee. A statue of the KKK’s first Grand Wizard is coming out of the Capitol after much public pressure from activists … A little progress in a place that has a long way to go.”
On Thursday, after the vote from the State Building Commission, Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally expressed their disappointment.
The fact that the bust of the first ever KKK Grand Wizard was still on Display in the Tennessee Capitol in 2021 is baffling but not surprising. https://t.co/cYnCy3yypz
— Annika Brockschmidt (@ardenthistorian) July 22, 2021
“No one is arguing that Forrest is not a problematic figure. He is. But there is more to his story. His life eventually followed a redemptive arc which I hope is outlined in great detail in our state museum,” said Mr McNally, in a statement.
He also said that the vote signalled that some advocates will likely find another monument to “demand that we again kneel at the altar of political correctness.”
Despite opposition to moving the bust, the momentum shifted in its favour due to support from Governor Lee in 2020. In 2018, he had argued that the Ku Klux Klan is “a part of our history that we’re not proud of in Tennessee, and we need to be reminded of that and make certain that we don’t forget it.”
His life eventually followed a redemptive arc which I hope is outlined in detail in our state museum. No figure honored on the capitol grounds or across the state could stand up to modern scrutiny.
— Randy McNally (@ltgovmcnally) July 22, 2021
Similar actions are being taken in other states such as Louisiana and Virginia where busts or statues of such leaders are being removed or relocated.
Additional reporting by agencies