Relatives of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan, filed a lawsuit Monday against the city of Memphis, Tennessee, over the removal of a statue from the Confederate general’s gravesite.
Lawyers representing descendants of the first KKK grand wizard and his wife, Mary Ann Forrest, filed the suit in Shelby County Chancery Court ahead of the first anniversary of the monument’s removal from Health Sciences Park, a small urban park where both of their bodies are buried.
A bronze sculpture of Forrest riding horse, the statue on a pedestal above the grave in 1905 and stayed there for more than a century prior to being removed moments after the city sold the park to Memphis Greenspace, a nonprofit organization that purchased the space for $1,000 in December 2017.
Calling the arrangement a “sham,” lawyers for the Forrest relatives claim in the 20-page complaint that the city and Memphis Greenspace “willfully and knowingly conspired to, and did, in fact, desecrate the graves and headstone monument,” alleging violations of several state laws and “common law principals protecting burial sites.”
“Every oversight body, including the courts and state comptroller, has found our actions to be lawful or appropriate,” responded Bruce McMullen, Memphis chief legal officer. “We expect the same outcome in this case. The city sold Health Sciences and Memphis parks to Memphis Greenspace, legally,” he said in a statement.
Defendants are seeking the statue’s return and related costs, as well as an order permitting the general’s descendants to have the remains reinterred at a location of their choosing.
“The descendants especially have made it clear throughout this process, it’s not about money for them at all,” said Bo Ladner III, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “It’s trying to get their ancestor to his final resting place and getting it there quietly. Nobody wants their family’s graves to be disturbed by cranes, jackhammers, or to be moved without their own permission,” he told Courthouse News Service.
Born in 1821 in Chapel Hill, Tenn., Forrest served as a general for the Confederate Army prior to becoming one of the first members of the KKK following its formation in 1865. He subsequently became the hate group’s first national leader, taking the title of grand wizard.
The sculpture of Forrest was among several monuments dismantled from cities located across the former Confederacy following the deadly August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a demonstration held in support of a similar statue slated for removal ended in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer.
James Alex Fields, Heyer’s killer, was found guilty this month of first-degree murder. A jury has recommended he spend the rest of his life in prison.