Cranes at twilight remove Confederate monuments from Memphis parks

A bronze statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was strung up amongst the trees of Health Sciences Park in Memphis.

Later that that evening on December 20, his Confederate commander-in-chief, Jefferson Davis, was shackled to a crane at Memphis River Park and removed in his second historical defeat.

The removal of Memphis Confederate statues was precipitated by a unanimous Memphis City Council vote earlier in the evening, where the council sold the two parks for $1,000 each to Memphis Greenspace, a nonprofit formed in October by Shelby County Commissioner and attorney Van Turner.

The vote catalyzed a series of moving pieces, some of which had been in the works for months and others for mere hours.

Within minutes of the Wednesday night vote, the Memphis Police Department had surrounded the parks in a tide of blue light, banning entrance from several blocks surrounding the statues.

Activist Tami Sawyer and supporters of the #TakeEmDown901 movement watched from the sidelines as the cranes circled the statue of Forrest.

#TakeEmDown901, led by Sawyer and Earle Fisher, is the most recent public campaign to call for the removal of the statues. The movement picked up steam in June following a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one protestor dead. Memphis joins a slew of other cities, including St. Louis, New Orleans and Birmingham, that have removed their Confederate monuments.

Related: "Following Charlottesville, pressure mounts in Memphis to remove two Confederate monuments"

The Forrest statue was erected in 1904 and stands as a grave marker for Forrest and his wife, who are buried below. Turner, whose nonprofit now owns the park and the gravesite, said the bodies will not be moved until an agreement is reached with Forrest’s descendants.

The Jefferson Davis monument was erected in 1964.  

#TakeEmDown901 leader, Tami Sawyer celebrates as the Forrest statue is lifted from its pedestal. (Dylan Sandifer)

In the aftermath of the council’s vote, City Council chairman Berlin Boyd addressed the media at Forrest Park. He thanked the business community, the clergy and the city council, calling the council’s desire to do things legally a “long and tedious process … and a collaborative effort.”

Onlookers, many of whom were actively involved in the #TakeEmDown901 movement, drowned out his interview with calls to acknowledge the role of the movement and its leader, Sawyer.

After the removal of the Forrest statue around 9:10 p.m., Sawyer addressed the crowd a final time saying, “This was the will of the people and we made it the will of the state…The people made this happen. We have watched activism work [in Memphis] from the sanitation workers all the way back to Ida B. Wells.”

She thanked Commissioner Walter Bailey for leading the movement twelve years ago as well as the work and support of Senator Lee Harris.

Sawyer said that this movement will continue and that “it was never a one-note” movement.

“Just because we were working on this did not mean we were working on other stuff. We work on voter efforts, we work on criminal justice reform, we work on access to transportation, clean water, livable wages, clean neighborhoods, education, reproductive justice.”

Sawyer and the #TakeEmDown901 movement found themselves often at cross purposes with the City and Mayor Jim Strickland, despite Strickland expressing support for the removal of the statues.

In June, Memphis police at a demonstration where activists attempted to cover the Forrest statue and call for its immediate removal. Since then, police have kept constant watch of the statue.

Mounted police guard the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue on December 22 ahead of its removal. (Dylan Sandifer)Legal channels proved challenging as Strickland appealed to the Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver to remove the statue, as is required by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act which forbids the removal of memorials on public land. The commission denied that waiver on October 13.

After the two statues were removed, Strickland issued a statement at City Hall.  

It’s important to know why we’re here: The Forrest statue was placed in 1904, as Jim Crow segregation laws were enacted. The Davis statue was placed in 1964, as the Civil Rights Movement changed our country,” he said.

“The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum. As I told the Tennessee Historical Commission in October, our community wants to reserve places of reverence for those we honor.

Strickland reiterated his commitment to remove of the statues in a lawful way, adding that his long-held strategy to go through the Tennessee Historical Commission was “not the only legal avenue.”

Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives have already called for an investigation.

At a press conference the morning of December 21, Turner said that the removal of the statues makes “this not an issue now” and said it was “time to move forward.” He acknowledged a long legal battle is almost certain and added that the Memphis Greenspace board is stacked with attorneys. He was joined by Andrew DeShazo, Lanique Turner, and Luther Mercer, who are members of the Greenspace board. Board member Leigh Chiles did not attend.

Related: "Post-protests, neighborhoods lead Memphis' greenspace growth"

Turner referenced the long history of intimidation black Memphians, including Turner’s father, faced at the park. He also nodded to the political figures and activists who sought for the statue’s removal at other times in Memphis’s history, such as the 2004 to 2005 campaign by Commissioner Walter Bailey and his late brother D’Army Bailey.

Turner said that the statues are together in an undisclosed location known to AllWorld Project Management, who Memphis Greenspace contracted to do the logistical work for the statue removal.

Despite being an entity separate from the city, Memphis Greenspace has employed the Memphis Police Department and plans to transfer protection of the park to a private security firm in the future.

Turner said he is open to transferring sale of the statues to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. One representative of the group, Lee Millar, stated at the December 21 conference that he plans to sue the city on the basis that moving the statue desecrated the graves of Forrest and his wife, who are buried beneath.

“We will not desecrate the graves,” Turner said. “We will be very respectful of the family [of Forrest].

Greenspace will continue raising funds to “liberate” and maintain more parks, Turner said.

The symbols to the Confederacy are off their pedestals today, but the battles surrounding this decision are likely to wage on for some time.

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901. 
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