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Tennessee’s General Assembly Sure Is Concerned With Keeping Racists Happy

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.

Sort of.

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.


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25 thoughts on “Tennessee’s General Assembly Sure Is Concerned With Keeping Racists Happy

  1. Those that argue that preserving the Confederate monuments/statues is a matter of history want it to be the history they prefer to believe. The Forrest statue is a good example: proponents will say its a memorial, and true Forrest and his wife’s remains were moved to the location, but not until 1904 and the statue was installed in 1905. Like the majority of these statues, they were put up during a time when, a generation removed from the actual war and with those that lived it fading into history, many wanted to change the historical narrative. It took many forms, such as what we now call Lost Cause beliefs, to emphasize the “honorable” struggle against long odds for rights and de-emphasize slavery. But it isn’t true, its a monstrous lie that generations of folks have bought into totally and made part of their identity. Not every soldier standing in the line for the Confederacy was there to save slavery, but the leadership and vast majority rebelled against their country to keep the horrid practice institutionalized. The wickedness of it is enshrined for history to judge in the Confederacy’s constitution, documents, papers, and actions. So if some want to argue “heritage not hate” fine, lets have that conversation. Because trying to rewrite the history to absolve the south created a lot of hate for generations since. We cannot have mob violence pulling them down. But do it legislatively, make leaders and lawmakers put their names on it. History should know them and where they stood too.

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  2. Here in Maryland our official state song is an explicit call for Marylanders to rise up against the United States Army. From time to time someone points out that this is a peculiar stance, and suggests that perhaps the state ought not be advocating treason. The last time the subject arose, our Republican governor was very sad at the idea that his state might not advocate treason and successfully blocked the proposal.

    This makes the typical official state song, which notes with pride that the state has both geographical features and agricultural products!, look pretty good by comparison.

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    • Preakness wouldn’t be the same without it.

      Maybe I’m a weirdo but I actually love Maryland, My Maryland. There’s something gloriously Monty Pythonesque about having this anachronistic state song thats totally outlived the historical context sung to the tune of O Christmas Tree. I’m probably in the minority but I’ll be sad to see it go, as it no doubt one day will.

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      • I was not aware of or had paid attention to the lyrics of Maryland, My Maryland before.

        Northern scum indeed.

        From Wikipedia: “The lyrics are from a nine-stanza poem written by James Ryder Randall in 1861. The state’s general assembly adopted “Maryland, My Maryland” as the state song on April 29, 1939″

        1939… Isn’t that nearly a century after the Civil War?

        The other thing I find interesting is how quickly Republicans are to throw their beloved Federalism out the window when it suits their needs.

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  3. I loathe the “but you’re erasing history!” argument on this issue. It is as intellectually dishonest as they come. Statues, monuments, holidays-those things do no represent or teach history; they honor and celebrate it. We should honor heroes, victims and survivors, not perpetrators. A statue of the founder of the KKK in a public park is to celebrate him and what he did, and any argument to the contrary is thinner than wet toilet paper.
    As long as there are museums, history books and historical documentaries about the civil war, nobody is erasing history.

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    • I grew up very much around people who honored and in many ways idealized the south. My opinion on this was different for two reasons. First and foremost having a father who was a history teacher by trade helped quit a bit, but secondly and perhaps just as formatively, living in Germany. Seeing how that country went from enemy to friend and how they teach their past to their children. There is no “lost cause” that permeated how I grew up and thought of the Civil War era. They are taught evil men took advantage of economic collapse and social unrest and the people failed to recognize or stop the manipulation and became complicit in it, and millions died because of it. Large swaths of our country are not taught that about the Civil War.

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      • The American Civil War is one of two great counter-examples to the principle that the winners write the histories. (The other is the Peloponnesian Wars.) Before the ink was even dry at Appomattox Courthouse, people on both sides had an incentive to misrepresent the history behind the war. With the end of Reconstruction there was essentially no constituency that mattered (i.e. was white) to push back against the rewrite.

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          • My recollection of how Reconstruction was taught to me in California public schools is pretty appalling. It was all about carpetbaggers opportunistically swooping down. It was many years later that it dawned on me that this is pure Lost Cause propaganda.

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            • One thing I noted in the Smithsonian African American history museum is how little they had on Reconstruction. The main permanent exhibit is three floors of history from the 1400s till the day before yesterday, but the Reconstruction section is maybe a half dozen display cases in a short hallway.

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            • Yep. That’s how it was taught in Texas. What’s fun is that I’ve got more than a few friends who, when the Civil War comes up, will start off with “What they won’t teach you in schools is [how the Civil War was about State’s Rights, not Slavery]”.

              They learned that in school. I know, I was in the same class as some of them.

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              • They learned that in school. I know, I was in the same class as some of them.

                Learning ‘This is something that you won’t learn in school’ is part of self-reinforcing lies of propaganda. Not only is the truth this thing, but everyone else is lying to you.

                I can’t count how many times I see Facebook posts saying ‘The liberal media isn’t talking about this’, and I know of it from…the liberal media. Sometimes poster even, absurdly, put that on articles _from_ CNN and MSNBC, so i find myself baffled as to what ‘liberal media’ they think isn’t talking about it.

                I say that as I look to my right and see, on my bookcase, ‘Lies My Teachers Told Me’, which superfically sounds like exactly the same thing…but isn’t, really, not mostly.

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                • A lot of this seems like the aftermath of the civil war was mishandled, but I’m not sure what the road to success would have looked like given the resource limits at the time. The amazing part is the scale of all this racism, and how many decades it went on.

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                  • The amazing part is the scale of all this racism, and how many decades it went on.

                    Oh, no. I mean, yes, it’s amazing, but the thing isn’t how long it went on…it’s that, for about 80 years _after_ the civil war, until the 1920s, it increased…and it really kept doing it after that, too, just via laws and not social pressure, which was already at max.

                    After my post yesterday, I idly picked up ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’ to glance through it. It has an entire chapter in there about how textbooks try really hard to present racism as something that has consistently lessened, where we started with slavery (The presumed ‘max racism’ level), and then a lot of people opposed it, then the civil war, then big levels of racism, then less, the civil rights movement, and less and less.

                    This…isn’t slightly how racism has worked historically in the US.

                    For the most obvious one, asserting that slavery==’extreme racism’ is somewhat dubious…as anyone who has looked into the history of racism in the US has learned, the start of racism basically has origins near the end of slavery, as a means to continue to justify it.

                    I mean, in 1780, the most ‘racist’ American slave-holder would think nothing of having a black man prepare his food, whereas in the 1880s, black players were driven out of major league baseball(1) because apparently, it was too offensive to play baseball against them. In 1820, black people commonly slept in the same house as their white masters, in 1920, they weren’t even allowed to sleep in the same _town_.

                    No, racism wasn’t some mysterious thing that old people used to believe very strongly in, and it weakened over time. Yes, there had always been some distrust of ‘outsiders’, throughout history, but people never really applied to people ‘from here’, even if they had different skin color. What was much more important is if they did all the same things as you…in 1400s England, a man with dark-ish skin because his father had been a Moor from Spain but he was was in all other manners a perfectly normal Christian peasant, was less likely to be considered an outsider than a white-ish looking person with the weird religious belief called ‘Judaism’.

                    Anti-black racism was a specific political theory invented in the early 1800s to justify keeping slavery (While the rest of the ‘civilized world’ got rid of it.), and then increased after the civil war as a way to for politicians to divide people so they could get elected. This is why, despite the founding father often hold slaves, you will find quotes of them unable to justify it…because the ‘black people are inferior’ hadn’t really been invented yet. There were bits and pieces of it, but no real consistent theory. (It would really take Darwinism it make it formal.)

                    Likewise, both instances of the US ‘changing out position legally’ on racism, the civil war and the civil right’s movement, were not due to enough people getting convinced of the anti-racist side that they made a stand, despite that being how it is how it is normally presented.

                    In both the civil war and the civil right’s movement, what actually happened is that enough people got convinced of the anti-racist side that they _stopped believing_ the racist side, stopped believing the justifications, stopped letting people manipulate them…at which point the racist side did some really stupid and fanatical shit, because any compromise would weaken their power.

                    American history is not white people being very dumb about racism, and then slowly getting smarter, and the ones that figure it out first sometimes fighting the ones who haven’t figure it out yet, and it’s all one happy gradual process to no racism. American history actually is white people repeatedly getting manipulated into believing in racist crap to divide and scare Americans so that politicians can then get elected based on that, and eventually, enough people realize it’s nonsense that the people promoting racism do something stupid and overstep.

                    Heaven forbid we teach _that_ in school…the current political analogies are way too obvious.

                    1) Another lie: Jackie Robinson was not the first black major league baseball player…he was just the first one not forced out by threats of lynching.

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    • A statue of the founder of the KKK in a public park is to celebrate him and what he did, and any argument to the contrary is thinner than wet toilet paper.
      As long as there are museums, history books and historical documentaries about the civil war, nobody is erasing history.

      And it is amazing how many of those statues and memorials have exceedly selective versions of history, when they aren’t just flat wrong.

      For example, in Memphis, there was a plaque up saying that Nathan Bedford Forrest lived nearby, and he had a ‘businss enterprise’ near that. Somehow, surely entirely by accident, whoever wrote that plaque forgot to say what that business enterprise _was_, which is rather odd. I mean, normally, the plaque would say something like ‘corn mill’ or ‘lumber camp’ or ‘smithy’ instead of the goofy term ‘business enterprise’, and provide a description of conditions there and how it worked, perhaps with some quotes from the workers.

      But luckily, Memphis just fixed their plaque. It now explains what Forrest’s business was, a stockade and auction house, and gave some quotes from some people that worked there.

      Erm, sold there. Sorry, I got that wrong. Quotes from people who were sold there.

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  4. As an aside, as at this point it’s pretty clear that Memphis abided by Tenneesee’s stupid law and got punished anyway, so the correct solution for cities that want statues removed is basically complete lawlessness.

    I mean that literally: They should make a statement that, as far as the city is concerned, as far as local law enforcement is concerned, literally anyone can do anything to those statues that they want. Tear them down, deface them, knock the heads off, anything. The _city_ may be barred from doing stuff to their own property, but no law makes them protect their own property from other people damaging it, or makes them fix it if damaged.

    Sure the state could, in theory, send in state law enforcement to protect that statues, vandalism of public property is a state law…so I guess those guys will just patrol forever?

    BTW, in case no one has ever bothered to mention this before: Their law stupidly makes lowering and raising public flags illegal. Including the US flag:
    (a) (3) “Historic entity” means any entity recognized as having state, national, military, or historical significance;

    (a) (7) (B) Any statue, monument, memorial, bust, nameplate, plaque, artwork, flag, historic display, school, street, bridge, or building that has been erected for, named, or dedicated on public property in honor of any historic conflict, historic entity, historic event, historic figure, or historic organization; and

    (b) (1) Except as otherwise provided in this section, no memorial regarding a historic conflict, historic entity, historic event, historic figure, or historic organization that is, or is located on, public property, may be removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered.

    The entity ‘The United States of America’ quite obviously has national significance (What a strange thing to say), so is a historic entity, and the US flag is erected in honor of it…and thus any US flag on public property in Tennesee cannot legally be removed or altered in any manner.

    Before anyone goes ‘This only applies to things erected before 1970’…most flags were. They were, of course, repeated unerested and reerected, but that can’t possibly undo the concept..the law explicitly applies to flags and no flag has hung undisturbed for almost 50 years. It’s simply not possible to make that happen. So to follow the ‘laws have to make sense’ rule, the only logical interpetation is it applies to a flag that is repeatedly hung and removed, as long as that started before 1970.

    And the law they just passed idiotically made those flags unalterable, which I _suspect_ they meant ‘You have to keep putting it up’, but actually means ‘You cannot put it down or up’, because, duh, that alters a flag. And putting it down ‘removes’ it also.

    Someone needs to go and file an injunction against the State of Tennessee for lowering the US flag. And the Tennessee flag, as the State of Tennessee presumably has ‘state significance’ to Tennessee.

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    • And, oh, I just checked the law: You don’t have to be in Tennesee to file an injunction:

      Any person who can demonstrate a real interest in a memorial through
      aesthetic, architectural, cultural, economic, environmental, or historic injury, or through
      administrative involvement in the waiver process, has standing to seek injunctive relief in chancery court of Davidson County to enforce this section

      I, personally, am suffering an aesthetic injury that the State of Tennesee is flying the US flag on a flagpole outside state government buildings while at the same time passing laws clearly set up to require local governments to continue to honor traitors. Aestheticly, I would much rather they kept the flagpole bare and the flag sitting on a shelf. It would would be much less…_jarring_ to me. And, yet, every morning, they hang it up, altering the shape and position of the flag, placing it outside their buildings so it looks like they’re a part of the US.

      Which, yes, they technically are, but I’d rather they stop reminding me. It’s an aesthetics thing.

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        • (On a similar note, were I Memphis, the last thing I’d be wanting to do would be to invite state law enforcement in to patrol my streets.)

          I wasn’t actually suggesting Memphis do that…Memphis already got rid of their stupid statues. I was suggesting other cities in Tennessee do that. They want to get rid of statues, they just issue a directive to their city and county police to ignore vandalism or theft of those specific statues, and make that fact public. (And, I guess, remove any cameras that would allow identification of perpetrators.)

          Tennessee state police has something like 850 officers _total_. Tennessee is, paradoxically, like most states, is not in any position to actually enforce state law across the entire state. Local communities do that.

          If local communities say ‘Yeah, we’re not going to enforce our vandalism laws for this specific thing’, the state government of Tennessee is basically screwed.

          This is why civil rights laws had to have corrective mechanisms for dealing with local communities that violated civil rights, to not only force them to stop violating the rights themselves, but to require them to protect people’s civil rights, via creating civil torts to sue local governments about.

          This law…has no such mechanisms. I mean, it sorta tried to make one, but failed horribly.

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  5. The THC argued that modern concerns about terrorism and traitorousness were trumped by the importance of celebrating historical figures.

    I have to wonder what they were smoking.

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