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Statue of Confederate general and KKK leader removed from Tennessee Capitol

The bronze bust was relocated to the Tennessee State Museum, where the governor suggested it be moved so it can be part of an exhibit on state military history.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — Four decades after its unveiling and countless protests since then, the bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from the Tennessee State Capitol building on Friday.

The bronze bust was relocated to the Tennessee State Museum just over a year after Republican Governor Bill Lee first suggested moving it to the museum, “where it can be part of an exhibit that can be studied, learned from and seen in full context.”

“The fact that it took so long I think is shameful and it’s sad. But it’s finally here — the day is here,” Nashville activist Justin Jones told reporters after the State Building Commission voted to remove the statue. “I want to make clear that wasn’t because of the benevolence of Governor Lee. That was people power. That was people organizing, getting arrested, coming to this Capitol for years and decades even to get that statue removed.”

“The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust has spurred a heated debate that began long before all the national ruckus on monuments that we are seeing play out today,” Lee said on July 8, 2020, a day before the State Capitol Commission took up the issue of where Forrest’s statue should reside.

The governor's remarks also came amid weeks-long protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“This issue of the Forrest bust that’s been going on for the last 40 years is very different from the destructive tide that has swept the nation in recent weeks that has been about defacing property and denying history,” Lee said at the time. “It’s mob rule that’s been confused for activism, yet it represents the worst possible way to address questions of history, symbolism and context.”

Indeed, the bust — paid for by the Sons of Confederate Veterans — has spurred protests since the day it was unveiled in November 1978.

On that day nearly 43 years ago, Nashville’s Black community protested at the state Capitol, saying “anything that symbolizes the Confederacy is an obvious insult to Blacks,” according to Tennessean newspaper archives.

It is impossible to separate the push to dedicate a bust of Forrest in the state Capitol building from what was happening with civil rights in the 1970s, according to historian Kevin Levin.

“These are not accidents why they're choosing people like Forrest to celebrate,” he said in an interview. “It sends a very clear political message.”

Legislation to install the statue was adopted in 1973, six years after the Civil Rights Act was passed and five years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Forrest also died there in 1877.

“African Americans at the time … they understood what the meaning of this statute was,” Levin said. “African Americans have always protested these monuments. They always understood that these Confederate monuments and statues were part of the fabric of legalized segregation.”

Just months after its unveiling, a group of about 75 Black Tennesseeans gathered at the Capitol in 1979 to protest then-Governor Lamar Alexander’s handling of issues related to the Black community and demanded the removal of the Forrest bust.

One man, David Kennedy, cracked a whip in front of reporters and said, “this whip symbolizes what the white man did to the Black man.”

But the Forrest statue didn’t attract attention only from protesters.

In October 1980, a group of Klansmen — dressed in full KKK garb — gathered under Forrest’s bust to announce they were training SWAT teams for race wars. A photo taken at the time is captioned, “Forrest ‘appropriately’ oversees Klan meet.”

Forrest is said to have been the first and only “grand wizard” — or national leader — of the original KKK.


According to a 1976 KKK report to the Illinois General Assembly, Frank McCord, one of the six original founders of the Klan and the editor of the Pulaski Citizen in Giles County, Tennessee, attended the Tennessee State Conservative Convention in Nashville in April 1867 and “sold the idea to other prominent sonservatives during his stay.”

The following month, Forrest became its leader. 

A Capitol employee walks past a bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville on Thursday. (George Walker IV/The Tennessean via AP)

Forrest went on to disband the KKK sometime between January and August 1869 after continued violence caused it to lose sympathy among white Americans, the report states. But the Klan continues to have a presence to this day.

In its petition to remove the bust from the Capitol building, the State Capitol Commission expressed its intent that Forrest’s bust, along with two others — U.S. Admirals Albert Gleaves and David Farragut, who also served in the Civil War — would be made part of an exhibit “honoring Tennessee’s military heroes.”

On Thursday, the building commission approved the petition in a 5-2 vote.

Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton were the two in opposition.

“I believe that context is needed, but not removal. No one is arguing that Forrest is not a problematic figure. He is. But there is more to his story,” McNally said in a statement. “His life eventually followed a redemptive arc which I hope is outlined in detail in our state museum.”

Levin hopes so too.

“Politics hovers over this,” he said. “It's not clear what kind of pressure, if any, staff members will experience in the interpretation they choose.”

“But I do think if we're talking about context, and both the lieutenant governor and Sexton … both talked about the importance of context,” Levin added. “And if that's the case, then you have to talk about the time in which these statues, these busts were dedicated, and even the organization of them — the fundraising, etc., and who was responsible … How much of that is going to fit into the interpretation, I don't know. But that's their obligation. That's their job as archivists, and that's their responsibility as historians.”

For McNally and Sexton, it’s more than just adding context.

“Trying to judge past generations’ actions based on today’s values and the evolution of societies is not an exercise I am willing to do because I think it is counterproductive,” Sexton said in a statement. “Any attempt to erase the past only aligns society with the teaching of communism, which believes the present dominates the past.”

McNally echoed those sentiments, adding that “left-wing activists who are pushing an anti-American, anti-history agenda here in Tennessee and across the nation will not stop with Nathan Bedford Forrest. The woke mob means ultimately to uproot and discard not just Southern symbols, but American heroes and history as well. This is not the end. It is the beginning.”

It is just the beginning for Nashville’s activists.

“What comes next is taking down the policies that that symbol represents,” Jones said. “That symbol for us was just like those ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signs that say, ‘You are not welcomed here.’ That ‘you are not equal here’ … We brought the symbol down, but what it represents is still up, and that’s what we’re going to continue to organize around. We told people that this is not about a statue, but if it’s this hard to remove a statue of white supremacy, imagine how hard it is to remove policies of white supremacy that are more subtle and sophisticated.”

Follow Rosana Hughes on Twitter

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