In 2015, then-Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called the push to remove the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol rotunda "a knee-jerk reaction" in the wake of a white supremacist's murder of nine African-Americans in church in Charleston, S.C.
This week, similar calls for removal of the bust have come after a white supremacist killed one protester and injured 19 others during a rally in Charlottesville, Va. Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker have stated that the bust should be moved to somewhere like the Tennessee State Museum, where it can be displayed in context, noting Forrest's military stratagems next to information about his brutality and slave-trading, but many other Republicans have disagreed, stating the statue should stay.
"If we cannot learn from the past, then we are surely destined to repeat it," would-be Haslam replacement Randy Boyd told The Tennessean on Monday.
"We should not wash away history just because some deem it offensive," commented another gubernatorial candidate, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee. "We should always try to learn from those who came before us. History is the best teacher."
State Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), who's also running, said, "Many monuments to their memory were built by the federal government after the Civil War concluded. ... Where will all the absurd apologies end? Should we tear down the Washington Monument because he owned slaves?" — a comment similar to what President Donald Trump said on Tuesday afternoon.
But the bust of Forrest wasn't a monument placed in remembrance after the Civil War. It was unveiled in the Capitol on Nov. 5, 1978, five years after then-state Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) set the plan to honor Forrest in motion. And on that very day, people protested the statue and called for its removal. Almost 40 years later, we're still in exactly the same place.
The idea for a statue honoring Forrest at the Capitol has been around since at least 1901, as plans for the sizable statue of Forrest in Memphis got underway. A letter from Capt. John W. Morton in the March 26, 1901, edition of The Nashville American said, "We desire to duplicate the Memphis monument and place it on Capitol Hill or some other eligible position in Nashville at one-fourth the original cost."
A July 26, 1906, article in the same paper urges the Nashville Board of Trade to form a monument association to spur the construction of memorials to Tennessee's great men, including Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk and Forrest, among others. In 1926, a Sept. 30 article in The Tennessean says state historian John Trotwood Moore had visited Memphis to discuss placing a Forrest statue similar to the one there on Capitol Hill.
"Gen. Forrest was the greatest man in the Civil War, President Roosevelt believed," Moore said. "His statue should be on Capitol hill [sic] by the side of Andrew Jackson." The article said the state would advance $15,000 toward the cost of the statue if Memphis provided the same amount.
Presumably, Memphis decided it had better things to do than to spend its money on a statue in a different city, because after that, there's not a lot of discussion about a statue of Forrest at the Capitol — that is, until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1973, the General Assembly passed a resolution sponsored by Henry to honor Forrest in statuary, although with no state funds attached. So the local Sons of Confederate Veterans sold signed prints of a portrait of Forrest for $20 or $30 (depending on whether you wanted a numbered print) for years until they had raised enough money for the statue. The original portrait was donated to Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in West Tennessee.
If case you're wondering if this sudden interest in placing Forrest in the Capitol was related to race, here's a clue: As the Southern Poverty Law Center has helpfully laid out in graphic form, the two largest spikes in monuments honoring the Confederacy were at the turn of the 20th century after Plessy v. Ferguson, as Jim Crow become law, and during the middle of the century at the peak of the civil rights movement.
Another clue: The Nashville chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans that funded the bust had been disbanded for a couple of decades before forming again in 1962. Sure, it was during the centennial of the Civil War, but it was also during the height of civil rights protests.
Two more clues: The 23-year-old Lipscomb graduate and SCV member who was the head of the Forrest Bust Committee in 1973, Kenneth P'Pool, had been an officer of the Wallace Youth of Davidson County in 1968 — that's the local group of young politicos who campaigned for noted racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace's failed presidential run. The other main SCV member involved, Lanier Merritt, who was a noted local Civil War expert and collector, is quoted in a 1988 Tennessean article as saying Gone With the Wind “was the greatest book that ever happened” and that the novel accurately depicted "how it was" during the war. And let's be clear — neither the book nor the film version of Gone With the Wind is known for its nuanced depiction of race. (Merritt is not to be confused with his father, the journalist Dixon Lanier Merritt, who edited The Nashville Tennessean-American during World War I and later became known for his humorous columns and one famous limerick.)
However, P'Pool — the only one of the three men still alive — insists race was not a factor in the five-year project to honor Forrest. P'Pool is now the deputy commissioner for historic preservation at the state of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and his work has since ranged far, far beyond the Civil War. He's been involved in restoring the home of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, erecting a monument at the University of Mississippi to honor its first black student, James Meredith, and preserving historic sites of Vietnamese immigrants damaged by Hurricane Katrina, among dozens of other projects. He also says he hasn't been politically active in 40 years and that he's apt to vote for independent candidates over a specific party.
As P'Pool recalls it, the idea for the Forrest bust came out of a discussion with Henry, who was a family friend.
"Once we were discussing Civil War history and the fact that Tennessee's two stars of naval history were honored in the hall of history, and that Tennessee's premier cavalry general should join them," P'Pool writes in an email. "There were no racist intentions or discussions, merely a desire to recognize three Tennesseans who are among the nation's most amazing military figures."
Henry did note at the time that he viewed the bust of Forrest as complimentary to an extant one of Admiral David Farragut, the Tennessee-born Union naval commander best known for the (possibly apocryphal) saying, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" during the Battle of Mobile Bay.
The SCV originally approached sculptor Puryear Mims about the bust, but he died in 1975. So the organization turned to the wife of one of its members, Loura Jane Baxendale. (Baxendale would later sculpt the busts of Confederate generals that are on display at the Carter House in Franklin.) After more than two years of work, the sculpture of Forrest was ready for display.
The Sunday before the unveiling, The Tennessean ran a lengthy story on the front of its "Panorama" section entitled, "Forrest in Bronze Immune to Time," a laudatory and sympathetic accounting of Forrest's years as a general with no mention of his slave-trading past, his role in the early years of the Ku Klux Klan or his general brutality toward blacks, enslaved or free.
A week later, protesters were on hand for the ceremony, calling the statue "an insult to all blacks."
"The unveiling of the bust fits into much of the mood of the nation — anti-black and ultraconservative," Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, told The Tennessean. "Even if Forrest hadn't been a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, his part in the Confederacy is enough."
But Henry told the paper that Forrest "had commendable qualities," adding, "In his time and place, Forrest was a man of compassion and humanity."
P'Pool says they had no hint that the statue would be controversial.
"[It] took both Sen. Henry and me by surprise, since the project's purpose was to recognize a military genius who is a native Tennessean," P'Pool says. "Fortunately, there was no violence at the event, but for a while after the event I received threatening and obscene calls at my home."
And the unveiling was just the beginning of the protests, which continued sporadically in the last days of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton's term. A group of black ministers issued a list of demands to the newly elected Republican governor Lamar Alexander in January, shortly before he was sworn into office, including the removal of the bust. (Other demands included more black representation on university boards and in leadership in state agencies, the elimination of the death penalty and reduction in unemployment.) Alexander said he'd meet with them after he settled into his job.
On Feb. 16, 1979, around 75 people again showed up to protest the statue, and two men were arrested, although charges were later dropped. One of the men arrested, David Kennedy, cracked a bullwhip at the statue while shouting that Alexander was "a white racist," telling reporters, "This whip symbolizes what the white man did to the black man." Another man, Leo Lillard, asked police to arrest him because "all blacks are in handcuffs."
The statue was damaged in the protest — it's unclear whether by the whip or another object, as news accounts don't specify — but three days later the vice president of the Nashville chapter of the NAACP, Dogan W. Williams, said during a press conference, "It (the bust) should have been ... really ... pulled down. Whoever did what damage was done to it, I feel, should have pulled it off rather than hitting it."
The NAACP chapter president, Dr. Charles Kimbrough, said he disagreed with Williams and thought the statue should be removed by legislative means. But he added that the refusal of officials like Alexander to condemn the bust as racist allowed "Klan-like" activities to continue. (The other reason for the press conference was because a cross had just been burned at a local television station, possibly because it was airing Roots: The Next Generations, police said. Notably, that same weekend someone stole a portrait of Forrest from Metro Public Library; it's unclear whether the perpetrator was ever caught.)
Alexander finally met with the leaders on Feb. 23, but he told them it was up to the legislature, not him, to remove the bust.
"If you are asking me about cross burnings, I can condemn them as fast as I can," Alexander said. "I have a lot of different feelings about the bust. There are a lot of things we don't like in our past, but that's not a good reason to remove the bust."
At this point, the bust had been in place for less than four months.
A year-and-a-half later, the bust of Forrest became the site for literal Klan members, in full regalia, to give a press conference saying that they were training SWAT teams in preparation for "race wars," modeled after regular police SWAT teams.
"In case of a race war, we're going to be prepared," Tex Moore, a Klan grand dragon, told reporters.
Occasional protests of the bust have popped up ever since. In 2010, the sculpture was moved from its spot flanking the entrance to House chambers to another spot nearby, and a new bust depicting Rep. Sampson W. Keeble, the state’s first black lawmaker, joined the grouping. (The bust is supposed to serve as a “commemorative emblem” for all 14 black legislators who served during Reconstruction; Keeble's term lasted from 1873 to 1875.)
Every few years, since at least 1979, there have also been protests of the Forrest statue in Memphis. Protests over Forrest's imagery and name have been ongoing at Middle Tennessee State University since at least the mid-1980s. And the rhetoric surrounding all of these is exactly the same as today.
In 2015, after the Charleston shootings, Alexander stopped short of calling for the removal of the bust of Forrest, even as Haslam and Corker did so. But on Wednesday he finally said what he hasn't been able to say for almost 40 years.
"State officials have created a process for deciding what to do about displays in our state facilities," Alexander said. "I agree with Governor Haslam that Nathan Bedford Forrest should not be among those honored at our state Capitol."
P'Pool said as someone who hasn't lived in Tennessee since shortly after the statue was installed, he wouldn't presume to tell the state what to do with the bust.
"In my opinion, learning to tolerate and even celebrate our diverse heritage is what democracy is truly about; that attitude is what actually makes democracy work," P'Pool says. "It's tragic that so few people attempt to practice that attitude. I would hope, however, that, whatever decision is made, it will be based on civil debate and careful consideration of all points of view, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction."
It is safe to say that after this long, if the bust of Forrest is eventually removed from the Capitol, it won't be a knee-jerk reaction.
Besides, Tennessee has at least 79 other public memorials of the Confederacy, so reminders that the past is never dead nor even past are stuck with us for while. And in any case, Forrest still gets his own state holiday, by law, every year.