NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - After voting unanimously for a resolution honoring a Confederate general, slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader, Tennessee lawmakers denounced the measure Thursday and said they were tricked into supporting it.
“This is a national embarrassment,” said Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson, an African-American from Memphis.
Most House members didn’t know they had voted for the resolution until after reading an Associated Press report that described how the language about Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had been included in a resolution honoring author Shane Kastler.
It was passed 94-0 on April 13 along with other items on the House consent calendar, a slate of bills and resolutions deemed uncontroversial and not requiring any floor debate.
Parkinson told his House colleagues it was unfair to include the resolution honoring Forrest among measures that usually celebrate events like wedding anniversaries and achievers such as school valedictorians, sports teams.
He challenged the chamber’s Republican majority to consider how they would have felt if he had “snuck a resolution” through the House honoring slave uprising leader Nat Turner or Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
“It’s sickening, it’s underhanded, it’s conniving, it’s crafty, it’s shady,” he said.
Days earlier, a separate measure honoring Forrest and the state’s first black state lawmaker was defeated in a House committee.
Republican Rep. Mike Sparks, who sponsored both resolutions honoring Forrest, initially dismissed concerns that he hadn’t explained the content of his resolution to his colleagues before the vote. But he offered an apology on the House floor on Thursday.
“I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings, not trying to use any trickery, or all kind of problems,” he said. “To my colleagues in the Black Caucus, if anybody’s offended, I apologize to y’all.”
Members of the Black Caucus of State Legislators went to the well of the House to issue a statement decrying Sparks’ resolution.
“Slavery is the cruelest, most inhumane part of our history - one that should be learned from, but certainly not celebrated,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, the Black Caucus chairwoman.
They were joined by House Republican leader Glen Casada and Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams.
Casada said he agreed with Democrats and the Black Caucus that the resolution should never have been included among the bills to be approved as a package.
“It was an end-run and it was buried in the resolution,” Casada said. “We all stood up as a body and said to the state of Tennessee, we’re sorry, it won’t happen again.”
Republican leaders looked into their options, but found that it was too late to undo their action. House resolutions don’t go to the governor’s desk, meaning Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has no power to veto the measure.
Calls to remove Confederate imagery from public places have multiplied across the South after the 2015 killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said at the time that he supported removing a bust of Forrest from the state Capitol, but it remains in the lobby between the House and Senate chambers.
Forrest was famous for his exploits as a Confederate cavalry general who had amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War.
He was accused of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a Confederate victory at Tennessee’s Fort Pillow in 1864, though the extent of his responsibility is disputed. And following the war, the newly formed Ku Klux Klan elected Forrest its honorary grand wizard, though he publicly denied being involved. Two years later, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members’ increasing violence.
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