NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday that the bust of a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader should be removed from the state Capitol and put in the state museum.
The Republican governor announced his position on the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at a news conference the day before the state Capitol Commission takes the first of two votes required to remove it.
Lee said the museum is a better place to display the bust of Forrest, a location “where the very purpose is to see and understand our history in full.”
The bust was unveiled in 1978 and has sparked multiple protests demanding its removal over the years. The Capitol Commission in 2017 voted against moving it to the state museum. Former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam similarly advocated for its removal.
Forrest was a Confederate cavalry general who amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War. His involvement with the Klan came after the war.
Lee said Forrest was a “renowned military tactician,” and the bust sits opposite of one of a Union admiral, David Farragut - the two representing the “push and pull” of Tennessee’s history, the governor added. But Forrest “significantly contributed to one of the most regretful and painful chapters in our nation’s history,” Lee said.
“Forrest represents pain and suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans, and that pain is very real for many of our fellow Tennesseans, as they walk the halls of our statehouse and evaluate how he can be one of the just nine busts that are elevated to a place of honor and reverence in the Capitol,” Lee said.
The bust’s removal would also need approval from the state’s Historical Commission. Some Republican officials have instead suggested adding context to the bust and leaving it where it is.
The national outcry over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes, has sparked a new push to remove Confederate symbols, including the Forrest bust.
The Republican-controlled Legislature in Tennessee refused to advance legislation calling for the bust’s removal before adjourning last month despite impassioned pleas from Black lawmakers.
Lee was quick to point out that the fight over the Forrest bust predated the current tearing down of monuments by protesters nationwide.
“This issue of the Forrest bust in this state that’s been going on for 40 years is very different than the destructive tide that swept the nation in recent weeks that’s been about the defacing of property and denying history,” Lee said. “That is a mob rule or mob mentality that’s confused for activism, but it represents the worst possible way I believe to address questions of history and symbolism and context.”
The call for moving the bust out of of the Capitol is the latest step in the governor’s changing position.
In December 2018, just before taking office, Lee told The Tennessean that “the Ku Klux Klan is a part of our history that we’re not proud of in Tennessee, and we need to be reminded of that and make certain that we don’t forget it. So I wouldn’t advocate to remove” the bust.
Early last year, he said he wouldn’t be opposed to adding context to the Forrest bust.
Lee said Wednesday the opportunity for “full context” on Forrest is available only in the state museum.
Additionally, this year Lee proposed eliminating a day commemorating Forrest in Tennessee, though Republican lawmakers voted last month to keep the day in place but remove the governor’s responsibility to sign the annual proclamation for it. Lee said lawmakers made a step in the right direction.
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