State officials will soon move a state Capitol bust honoring enslaver, KKK founder and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The State Building Commission voted 5-2 to concur with earlier recommendations to move the busts of Forrest and admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves to the Tennessee State Museum. Gov. Bill Lee was one of the votes for removal; he has changed his position on the bust since his 2018 campaign, when he said it should remain in its honorary position at the Capitol.
A representative from Lee's office told the Post prep work would begin today and the bust's removal is slated for Friday.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally were the two commission members to vote against removal. Both have repeatedly tried to stop any effort to take down the bust of Forrest, whom historians claim led soldiers who massacred surrendered Union troops at the Battle of Fort Pillow.
But Lee, Finance Commissioner Butch Eley, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower and Treasurer David Lillard — all, like Sexton and McNally, white men — were enough to dismiss the legislative leaders’ opposition.
McNally argued that, while the KKK leader was “problematic,” his life “followed a redemptive arc.”
“While the governor and the constitutional officers did not stand with me today, I hope they will next time,” he said. “Because more fights are coming.”
Sexton said the legislature would seek to revise current law “to include a more significant voice of those elected.”
“Trying to judge past generations’ actions based on today’s values and the evolution of societies is not an exercise I am willing to do because I think it is counterproductive,” Sexton said of the slave trader.
Black lawmakers celebrated the decision. Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville), whose father was a member of the legislature when the bust was put up, said it was “a tremendous day for Tennessee.”
House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) praised Lee for changing his mind on the issue.
“He’s made a conscious, bold, courageous decision to not politicize it anymore and move forward with what the people want,” she said.
As for Sexton and McNally, Camper said she figured they were listening to the will of their Republican colleagues.
“They could have had the courage to say this is what’s best for Tennessee right now,” she said.
Activist Justin Jones, who has been arrested several times around the Capitol, including for protesting the Forrest bust, was not as quick to praise Lee.
“I’m so happy for the commission vote, but I want to make clear that that wasn’t because of the benevolence of Gov. Lee,” Jones said. “That was people power. It was people organizing, getting arrested, coming to this Capitol for years and decades to get that statue removed. Gov. Lee didn’t have a change of heart. He didn’t see the light, but he felt the fire of a movement that pressured him to change.”