Back in 2015, in the aftermath of the South Carolina church shooting, Memphis’s City Council decided that it wanted to rid itself of statues celebrating terrorists and traitors. The city’s council voted to get rid of one such statue before being immediately overruled by the Tennessee Historical Commission. The THC argued that modern concerns about terrorism and traitorousness were trumped by the importance of celebrating historical figures. A second appeal, in 2017, also fell on similarly deaf ears, with the same commission making the same fundamental argument: celebrating terrorists and traitors is more important than not doing that.
Memphis appeared to be stymied. The THC was obviously going to block any attempt to stop celebrating terrorists and traitors. But instead of abandoning its fight – one predicated on recognizing that Memphis as it currently exists is very, very different than the one that actually sought to publicly praise terrorists and traitors – the city instead found a clever workaround. First, the City Council approved legislation allowing it to sell city parks to nonprofits that promised to continue maintaining the properties as public facilities. Then, Memphis did exactly that, selling off two parks, and everything in them, to Greenspace. The non-profit then promptly did what the city could not, removing statues celebrating Nathan Bedford Forrest (a terrorist) and Jefferson Davis (a traitor).
The modern Memphis is more than 60 percent African-American and it celebrated the removal of statues honoring monstrous men. Forrest (an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan) and Davis (who helmed the Confederacy) fit nowhere in a modern American city, and that they ever fit at all is a testament to the failure of America to live up to the ideals that it was allegedly founded upon.
Weirdly, though, state Republicans loudly balked at the move, insisting that the sale – although entirely legal – had violated the spirit of Tennessee state law that had been written and rewritten to force modern populations to celebrate the terrorism and traitorousness of previous generations.
“We are governed by the rule of law here in Tennessee and these actions are a clear infringement of this principle and set a dangerous precedence for our state…We look forward to beginning this investigation and addressing this important constitutional issue as we prepare for the 2018 legislative session in Nashville.”
That was House Majority Leader Glen Casada and House Republican caucus chairman Ryan Williams in the immediate aftermath of the statues’ removal. They were joined in angry mourning by the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Randy McNally – who was at least generously willing to acknowledge that Forrest and Davis both had “troubling histories” – who insisted that the entire historical narrative needs to be taken into account when considering either man,* implicitly arguing that the statues’ critics were spending too much time focusing on the terrorism and the traitorousness. Instead, those critics should have been focusing on things like Forrest’s having been a successful businessman (he made millions selling slaves and owning plantations worked by slaves) and Davis having been a successful politician (who spent considerable time arguing for the spread of slavery into both Mexico and the Caribbean). Or maybe McNally meant that both should have been recognized for being sons of Memphis, what with both men hailing from the city’s thriving suburbs. Forrest, after all, was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, a small hamlet located only 250 miles away. And Davis was born in Fairview, Kentucky, merely 225 miles away.
Because the sale had been legal, and was undertaken before Tennessee’s elected legislators could stay a step ahead of the Memphis’s city leaders, the state’s General Assembly was flummoxed. How could it punish Memphis for refusing to honor terrorists and traitors, as had been the General Assembly’s wont? Its answer was to strip $250,000 in state funding for Memphis’s bicentennial celebration.
The General Assembly’s Finance Committee first unexpectedly approved a $250,000 amendment initially written by Karen Camper, a Democrat from Memphis. That amendment provided for additional funding for Memphis’s 200th birthday party. Camper was surprised that it was approved, given the General Assembly’s overwhelmingly Republican tilt. Then, a day later, when the Finance Committee’s budget reached the floor, Matthew Hill, a Republican from Jonesborough, introduced language removing the funding. It passed 56-31. And in case there was any confusion about what exactly the state’s General Assembly wanted Memphis to understand, another representative, Steve McDaniel, rushed into the breach to explain:
“We were just looking for opportunities – some way to withhold some money from Memphis…We were looking for any opportunity we could to send that message and that’s what we did.”
Memphis, in other words, had to pay a price for refusing to celebrate terrorists and traitors. McDaniels expounded upon his beliefs on the House floor.
“If you recall back in December, Memphis did something that removed historical markers in the city…It was the city of Memphis that did this and it was full knowing that it was not the will of the legislature.”
McDaniel’s point is this: an overwhelmingly black city is obliged to celebrate terrorists and traitors, whether or not it wants to, because people like him say so. An awful lot of Memphis’s citizens, in other words, remain under the legislature’s thumb, a position that Forrest and Davis would have no doubt enthusiastically approved of.
Of course, maybe this was just a one-off thing, not tinged at all by racial animus. Maybe it was, instead, representative of nothing more than the sort of pissing match that governments often get into with one another. Memphis’s leadership was just as hard-headed as Tennessee’s, after all, so maybe this will be the end of it. The statues are gone and Memphis is fundraising for its $250,000, so maybe each side can simply agree to disagree with the other. Memphis can continue hating terrorists and traitors and Tennessee’s government can continue celebrating them. That would certainly be a tempting conclusion.
In fact, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, once went so far as to say that white supremacists “were not welcome in Tennessee.” That was in the aftermath of a White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville, TN, that saw various representatives of various white supremacist organizations, including Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan, show up to bellyache about a changing world. That rally occurred six weeks before Memphis removed its statues. Maybe something changed in the intervening six weeks. Maybe Haslam meant that white supremacists are only welcome in metal form. Maybe he was just talking.
But what is clear is that while all of this was going on, Tennessee’s government was doing one other thing: shielding white supremacist organizations from public scrutiny. Voluntarily, the state’s legislature, the same one that would later strip money from Memphis for removing statues of terrorists and traitors, decided that it would no longer make public the records of rentals at state parks. This would allow white supremacist organizations to continue renting state property – Stormfront and American Renaissance had each held conventions at state parks – while shielding those organizations from view. The stated reason for doing this was protecting renting individuals from identity theft.
Elected officials, informed of what the shielding law would be used to accomplish, pled ignorance, insisting they had not intended to protect white supremacists. Those same legislators would no doubt make the same claim about protecting those statues and then punishing the people that removed them. Which, incidentally, is something they have just generalized beyond Memphis, voting to financially hamstring cities that remove historical statues, monuments, or markers. The legislation was written by Steve McDaniel, mentioned earlier.
The legislature has not found the time to correct the public records law.
*For instance, one was both a terrorist and a traitor, whereas the other was just a traitor.