NASHVILLE, Tennessee – The bust of a Confederate general and the first leaders of the Ku Klux Klan that had been prominent inside the Tennessee Capitol for decades – despite objections from black lawmakers and activists – has been removed from its pedestal on Friday.
Nathan Bedford Forrest’s image has sparked protests since its installation in 1978 as advocates sought to praise his legacy while critics objected to honoring a historical figure who supported Southern secession. Over the years, some have suggested adding historical context next to the bust. Yet many others, including Republican Gov. Bill Lee, have successfully advocated moving it to the Tennessee State Museum, just north of the Capitol.
Forrest was a Confederate cavalry general who amassed a fortune before the Civil War as a Memphis slave trader and plantation owner. He was later a leader of the Klan as he terrorized black people, quashing reconstruction efforts and restoring white power in the South.
He was in charge during the Battle of Fort Pillow, where about 300 African-American soldiers were slaughtered by Forrest’s men after surrendering. The massacre sparked outrage in the North and was one of the most hotly contested incidents of the Civil War.
Busts of Union Navy Admiral David Farragut and US Navy Admiral Albert Gleaves were also moved to the museum on Friday, as part of a deal used to gain necessary votes on the panels keys that military leaders should not be displayed in the Capitol.
Forrest died in 1887, but he maintained a strong presence throughout Tennessee history. A state park and state vacation are named after him. There is a 25 foot statue of Forrest on a horse located along Interstate 65 firing a gun.
Most recently, the bodies of Forrest and his wife were moved from Memphis in June. Forrest, a former member of the Memphis city council, had been moved there and buried in 1904 under his statue.
Still, the bust on Capitol Hill remained particularly painful for Tennessee’s black legislative caucus, many of whom had made moving speeches about the need to go through a slave trader and a Confederate general as they went about their work every day.
“From the Fort Pillow massacre to wandering lynchings, from Jim Crow to the assassination of MLK, Jr., it is time for us as a people to heal the wounds of the past,” said Senator Raumesh Akbari, a black lawmaker. of Memphis who chairs the Democratic Senate caucus.
The Tennessee State Building Commission on Thursday voted 5-2 to remove the busts, the latest obstacle in a months-long process that legislative leaders had strongly opposed.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly has refused for years to push forward legislation calling for bust removal. In 2016, lawmakers changed state law to make it harder to remove statues or rename streets of controversial figures by requiring those changes to receive a two-thirds majority vote from the Tennessee Historical Commission. The amendment came just a year after former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam supported the removal of Forrest’s bust in 2015 after the murder of nine black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina. Haslam again called for the withdrawal in 2017 after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but that year the proposal was rejected by a state panel.
However, the momentum changed when Lee shifted his stance and called for moving the Capitol bust in 2020 amid nationwide outcry over George Floyd’s death in Minnesota custody. Floyd’s death sparked a new push to remove Confederate symbols, including the bust of Forrest.
Lee’s position was markedly different from when he took office in 2018, arguing that “the Ku Klux Klan is part of our history that we are not proud of in Tennessee, and we need to remember that and make sure that we do not forget it. I would therefore not recommend removing ”the bust.
The bust of Forrest will be ready for public viewing at the State History Museum on Tuesday. It is not known what exactly details will be released about him.