Don’t Mess with Memphis!

Ideas and Issues
Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue removed in Memphis. Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Gulfport  Look out America, here comes Memphis, and they are showing the way and having their say. You have Confederate statutes and are thwarted by retro-19th century wannabes who still can’t come to grips with America and all of its people in the 21st, then pay attention in class and study the Memphis, yes, Memphis, Tennessee, playbook, for how to take names and remove statutes.

In recent weeks after a bit of a hiatus, the statute controversy was back in the news with Charlottesville, Virginia once again. An exhaustive report by a former US Attorney of the riot, murder, and chaos of the right and racist marchers in that city concluded that the police had mishandled the situation pretty much front to back. This was hardly a surprise and one where we had argued that they were snookered early and often by the marchers and been caught flatfooted at every turn. (See also Kristin Szakos piece in Social Policy). The police chief resigned in the wake of the report. There is still no resolution to this matter, and the lessons being learned from Charlottesville are still reverberating.

Memphis, in the prelude to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 4th next year and pushed by a number of groups, including Take ‘#Em Down 901, had a problem with two Confederate glory road statutes in public city parks, one of Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America, and the other of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Civil War and Klu Klux Klan hero. They were stymied by the rearguard Republican majority in the Tennessee state legislature that had reacted to all of the statute controversy by passing a law called the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act that prohibited renaming, removing, or even relocating any memorials on public property, therefore seeking to preempt Memphis or any other jurisdiction in the state from messing with any racist memorabilia. Memphis didn’t go rogue. They applied to the state Historical Commission for an exemption to be able to move the statutes. In October, they were denied. In Tennessee, they thought that was the end of the matter.

Memphis thought differently. In October,  a member of the county commission registered a nonprofit called Memphis Greenspace. This week in a unanimous vote of the Memphis City Council, the city sold one park and an easement in another for $2000 total to Memphis Greenspace. Within an hour of the council’s decision and the Mayor’s announcement, cranes were moving one statute at exactly 9:01 PM giving a shout out to the 901 Memphis telephone area code and the Take ‘Em Down movement. An hour and a half later, the statute of Jeff Davis was moved while the crowd sang, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no’ more, no’ more.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Memphis has shown how to put will and way together so that others can follow, regardless of the obstacles, and follow the “do right” rule.