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.