Following Charlottesville, pressure mounts in Memphis to remove two Confederate statues

The bloody protests in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked by removing a Confederate statue have struck a chord in Memphis, where activists work to bring down two Confederate monuments. That effort has recently spread to include groups like the Greater Memphis Chamber and Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale. 


The conversation around removing Memphis’ Confederate statues and monuments was simmered steadily until August 12, when an alleged white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer drove his car through peaceful counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring 19 others.

The counter-protesters in Charlottesville had gathered to oppose violent rhetoric from hundreds of white supremacists. The white supremacists had gathered to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from public space.

And as part of a ripple effect across the nation, Memphis’ own conversation about its homages to the Confederacy went from simmering to boiling within hours.

Folks gather at Health Sciences Park at the Memphis event held in solidarity with Charlottesville following the Aug. 12 events that included white supremacist rallies and violence against counter protesters.

“We are going to stand with all the cities across the country that have finally taken action to take down the white supremacist structures representing the Confederacy,” local activist Tami Sawyer said at a press conference outside Memphis City Hall, days after the attacks in Charlottesville.

Sawyer, who has spearheaded the #takeemdown901 movement, has been a consistent public figure calling upon Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Memphis City Council for the immediate removal of the monument and remains of Confederate general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest from Health Science Park, as well as the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from Downtown Park.

Sawyer has gained support throughout the process, often joined by First Abyssinia Baptist Church pastor Earle Fisher and Coalition for Community Change member Keedran Franklin.

Strickland, who has been calling for the Forrest monument’s removal since 2015, has declined to publicly meet with the #takeemdown901 group, but has reiterated the city’s plans to sue the state of Tennessee in order for the statues to come down.

Memphians call for the removal of Memphis' Confederate statues, like the one of General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park.

The lawsuit could take years before yielding an outcome.

“If we plan to have litigation with the state, then why not move the statues now, be sued later,” asked Sawyer. “Either way, it’s a lengthy process, but the city of Memphis can make the first move.”

In theory, the lawsuit would be enacted from Memphis’ side once the Tennessee Historical Commission denies the two waivers needed to bypass the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a state law enacted in 2013 that prohibits the removal or alteration of military-related monuments, including those of the Civil War.

In order for that to happen, the commission must first deny both waivers. If the commission elects to hear the cases for the two separate waivers sought, and then subsequently denies them, the earliest Memphis could sue would be after their October meeting.

“We don’t have three months,” urged Sawyer. “We don’t have three months and we don’t have three years to wait in courts while these structures continue to stand in our city.”

In an August 16 statement, Chief Communications Officer Ursula Madden reiterated that without a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission, removing the Confederate monuments is illegal.

Rep. Steve Cohen signs a solidarity banner that was rolled out. 'Keep the Faith,' he wrote.

“We will not break the law. We will not direct city employees to break the law. We will not ask police officers to violate their oath of office. Mayor Strickland has long supported removing the statues and continues to seek a lawful way of doing it,” she stated,

Sawyer points to another pressing reason for immediate action; the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Downtown Memphis looms ahead on April 4, 2018. Hundreds of dignitaries and tourists are expended to descend on the city for the anniversary next year.

“I do not believe the city can fully recognize what we have or have not achieved in the 50 years since King’s assassination, just five blocks from a statue of Jefferson Davis, if we allow these structures to still stand,” said Sawyer.
 

 

On August 17, the Greater Memphis Chamber joined the conversation. As the voice of Memphis’ private sector, the organization believes that the presence of Confederate monuments hurts Memphis’ ability to attract new business. The chamber also supported the Memphis City Council’s move in 2013 to change the names of Memphis’ Confederate parks to more neutral titles. For example, the contested statue of General Forrest stands in Health Sciences Park, an area known before as Forrest Park.

“We have been consistent in our position that we are opposed to any symbol that divides us and is a detriment to our ability to attract and retain businesses and people to our community. We support our city’s action to remove the statues and look forward to moving Memphis forward in our creation of jobs, attraction of businesses and enjoyment of public spaces for all,” the chamber stated.

So far, Sawyer and the #takeemdown901 group have been the primary voices and organizers that have produced one civic action after the next, often in the face of thinly veiled online threats of retaliatory violence.

Community members embrace each other during a call to meet and greet a new person in the crowd during the Memphis event held in solidarity with Charlottesville.

That changed yesterday when Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale lent his voice to the debate after local journalist Wendi C. Thomas asked him about his stance on the Confederate monuments.

“I can no longer sit here and watch this,” said Fizdale. “We have a statue of a known Klansman (Nathan Bedford Forrest) right here in this beautiful city.”

Fizdale challenged city leaders to take direct and swift action, rather than “placing a bunch of red tape in front of us.”

“I’m calling on all of our citizens to get actively involved in fixing this problem,” said Fizdale, who continued, “Especially our white citizens, because until this becomes absolutely unacceptable to you, it will continue.”

The breaking point for Memphians as a majority remains to be seen, but if recent civic actions serve as any barometer to the movement for removal, it’s clear that pressure will continue to mount.

Read more articles by Micaela Watts.

Micaela Watts is a freelance reporter in her hometown of Memphis and has a focused interest in community reporting. Her work has appeared in The Memphis FlyerChalkbeat Tennessee, and The Daily News
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