Despite a push by Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, the controversial bust of Nathan Bedford Forest will remain in the state Capitol, at least for now.
On Friday, the State Capitol Commission voted against starting the process to remove the statue of the Confederate general and slave trader who was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The bust was installed in 1978 and has been the object of protests since the day it was unveiled. In the past two years, after the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston and after the death of a woman during racially charged protests in Charlottesville, the push to remove the statue has grown more heated.
Still, the commission voted 7 to 5 to keep the bust where it is.
"Where does this end?" asked state Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville), questioning if statues of Andrew Jackson would be next. "I think we're going down a slippery slope."
Haslam spokesperson Jennifer Donnals said the governor "is very disappointed with the decision."
Under a 2016 law — passed after other cities and states started removing Confederate monuments in the wake of Charleston — the Capitol Commission must request a waiver to move the bust from the Tennessee Historical Commission, which must approve the waiver with a two-thirds majority. Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin moved that the board request the waiver, saying, "A vote for relocating is a vote for unity." But three other top state officials — all appointed to their offices by the General Assembly — quibbled with Martin.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett said that the state's complicated history needed to be preserved, commenting that when he's in his offices in the Capitol, he doesn't contemplate the Forrest bust and what it symbolizes but rather, "I think about where our state is headed." Comptroller Justin Wilson questioned whether the commission even had the authority to remove a bust installed by the Legislature. And Treasurer David Lillard advocated for future adoption of a plan in which all the busts and portraits in the Capitol (including that of Forrest) are rotated between the building and the Tennessee State Museum every so often, providing a fuller picture of the history of the state.
Rep. Johnson, Hargett, Wilson and Lillard were joined in their votes against the move by state Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Memphis lawyer King Rogers and Tammy White, the head of Leadership Knoxville and the only woman on the committee. Both Rep. and Sen. Johnsons are planning to run for leadership positions in their respective chambers in the next year or two, depending on when House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris officially leave office.
Voting to move the bust were Martin, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation head Robert Martineau, Department of General Services Commissioner Bob Oglesby, Fisk University history professor Dr. Reavis Mitchell, and Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry.
Mitchell and Gentry are the only two African-Americans on the commission. Gentry gave an impassioned speech against keeping the statue in place.
"When I was a little boy and came into the state capitol, there were 'colored' bathrooms. That bothered me then. It bothers me today," Gentry said. "I don't want to get a history lesson when I walk into the state capitol. I don't need that."
White Republican legislators Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta and Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden both praised the vote on Twitter, calling it "common sense" — which likely signifies that a push to get the Legislature itself to remove the bust, especially in an election year, will be a tough sell.
But those sentiments are only likely to further escalate tensions with the Black Caucus, already outraged after Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) snuck in a resolution honoring Forrest in a roundabout way last spring.
"There is No Place for Hate in TN. We can learn history without celebrating its darkest moments within our capital [sic]," tweeted Nashville Rep. Brenda Gilmore.
Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris also expressed his displeasure, tweeting, "[S]eems like TN is first to go against what had become virtually a national consensus."