Two controversial Confederate statues were removed from Memphis parks Dec. 20 shortly after the city council approved sale of the public land to a nonprofit organization.
The sudden developments came after the city met roadblocks in its lengthy effort to take down statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and President Jefferson Davis. City leaders were seeking to remove the monuments before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was slain April 4, 1968, in Memphis.
Among the many Memphis events scheduled for the April 2018 commemoration of King’s life is a two-day conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition. “MLK50: Gospel Reflections From the Mountaintop” – scheduled April 3-4 at the Memphis Convention Center – is designed to provide reflection on the status of racial unity in the American church and culture, as well as to examine what is required in its pursuit.
Memphis became the latest city in which Confederate statues have been removed this year, joining such locales as Baltimore and New Orleans.
The removal of the statues followed a unanimous vote Dec. 20 by the Memphis City Council to sell Health Sciences Park and its easement on Memphis Park to Memphis Greenspace Inc. for $1,000 apiece, The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. Greenspace had both statues removed that evening for storage in an unannounced location.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said in a letter on Facebook Dec. 20, “[W]e saw an avalanche of support come together behind our efforts” following the August white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in violence and death.
“In all of my life in Memphis, I’ve never seen such solidarity,” Strickland wrote. “To all who have joined the effort: THANK YOU. This day would not have been possible without you.”
The statues’ removal followed an Oct. 13 request by Strickland to move the monuments a more appropriate place, which was rejected by the Tennessee Historical Commission.
The day after the statues’ removal, however, some Republican leaders in the Tennessee legislature called for an investigation into the city’s sale of the public land, according to The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. They also said legislation may result.
Forrest, in addition to his role in the Confederate army, was a slave trader and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Some historians contend he was the KKK’s Grand Wizard. Forrest also was accused of war crimes in what has been historically known as the Fort Pillow Massacre of black Union troops at Tennessee’s Battle of Fort Pillow in 1864.
Forrest later became an important member of Memphis society and renounced the KKK, according to The Commercial Appeal.
The remains of Forrest and his wife were relocated from Elmwood Cemetery to what was then Forrest Park in 1904. The statue was placed over their graves the next year.
Davis’s statue was erected in 1964.
Calls for the removal of Forrest’s statue had grown over the last 50 years. Two years ago, the city council unanimously voted to remove his statue and move the caskets back to Elmwood Cemetery. The Tennessee legislature voted in 2016 to require the state’s Historical Commission to issue waivers for monuments of historical figures to be modified, according to The Commercial Appeal. That move led to Memphis’ waiver request, which the Historical Commission denied. State-initiated mediation began in November, but it was unsuccessful, Strickland said in his Dec. 20 Facebook post.
On Sept. 13, 170 Memphis-area clergy, including SBC President Steve Gaines and a dozen other Southern Baptists, urged that Forrest’s statue be moved “to a more historically appropriate site.”
In September, Gaines, pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, told Baptist Press he supported removing both the Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park and the Davis statue from Memphis Park.
Both monuments “are a source of offense to many citizens of Memphis due to Forrest’s and Davis’ support of the enslavement of African Americans,” Gaines said in written comments at the time. “Fair-minded Americans acknowledge that slavery was cruel and unchristian. Indeed, slavery stands as one of the darkest blights of our nation’s history. Thus, these statutes should be relocated to less prominent, more appropriate settings.”
King, only 39 at the time of his death, led the civil rights movement from his time as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. He led the movement to practice nonviolence in its pursuit of change, helping produce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Memphis to advocate for sanitation workers on strike, King gave what became known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed.