After numerous protests and years of controversy, the Tennessee Historical Commission voted on Tuesday to move the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum. Many hope the new space can provide valuable context about Forrest’s life as a slave-trader, Klansman and Confederate general whose men were responsible for the massacre of hundreds of black soldiers.
The vote was nearly unanimous, with 25 votes in favor of removal and only one vote against. The commission also voted to relocate two other military busts — of Albert Gleaves and David Glasgow Farragut — to the museum.
The meeting was open to statements from the public and sparked a spirited discussion from participants including state leaders, MNPS teachers, Vanderbilt and TSU professors, local organizers, historians, and other community members. Nearly every participant advocated for the bust's removal, calling Forrest a war criminal, a traitor, a terrorist and a coward. Many argued that Forrest’s alleged renunciation of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as his military prowess, did not negate his legacy of white supremacy and fear.
Daniel Sharfstein — Dick and Martha Lansden Chair in Law at Vanderbilt —said in his statement, "The defense of his reputation requires hair-splitting and rhetorical gymnastics, and relies entirely unconvincingly on Forrest’s self-serving statements.” Jama Mohamed, another participant, echoed Sharfstein’s sentiment. He spoke in front of a virtual background showing hooded Klansmen rallying in front of the Forrest bust in 1980. “If these dudes show up to pay homage to your statue — come on guys,” Mohamed said.
Gov. Bill Lee also expressed his support for the bust’s removal, acknowledging its harmful legacy. “Forrest represents pain, suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans," Lee said. "And that pain is very real for many of our fellow Tennesseans as they walk the halls of our state House." Lee pushed for the bust’s removal over the summer, when the State Capitol Commission — a separate body — voted 9-2 to move the statue.
Commission members discussed “lost-cause mythology” as a driving force behind modern support for Confederate monuments. Derek Frisby, a history professor at MTSU, explained in his testimony to the commission that the lost cause mythology seeks to “remove slavery” in order to “shift the blame” from the Southern cause. When speaking about the Civil War, lost-cause mythologists often focus on military tactics as well as the idea of the “brave Southern soldier,” Frisby said.
But for many Tennesseans, the true history behind the lost-cause myth is all too real. “Tears come to my eyes every time I get off the elevator and look at that Forrest bust," said state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, who is Black. "And I can hear the wails and cries of those 200 surrendered soldiers — soldiers that were still slaughtered by his command."
Despite the lopsided vote, support for removal is not unanimous. A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally told The Tennessean that the commission acted outside the law in its decision.
Even so, the probable removal of Forrest’s bust signals the end of a painful legacy at the Capitol — an important step in the right direction.