NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee governors would no longer be required to issue a proclamation honoring a former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader under legislation approved by the GOP-dominated Statehouse.
However, the state will continue to designate July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest day. An original version of the bill removed the Forrest designation entirely but it was later amended after not receiving enough support from inside the Legislature.
Tennessee lawmakers have long been resistant to calls not to honor Forrest despite requests from their black colleagues who oppose granting such prominence to a former slave trader.
“I want you to know what it feels like for me, as an African American woman that our state still celebrates someone who not only made his fortune on the selling of bodies, selling black folks like we were tractors,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis.
Senate lawmakers signed off on the legislation Wednesday. A House version was approved earlier this year.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee is expected to sign the bill after previously acknowledging he did not like issuing the proclamation honoring Forrest last year.
Lee triggered a national backlash when he not only signed the Forrest proclamation, but also at the time declined to answer reporters’ questions over whether he thought the law should be changed. Tennessee governors have quietly signed the proclamation for years.
While the original version of the bill did remove the Forrest designation, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson - who promotes the governor’s legislative agenda - said that issue now needed to be taken up “at different time with a different vehicle.”
Lee later told reporters that he felt the bill was a step “in the right direction.”
“This bill that lessens the height of the proclamation of this particular day that’s particularly painful to African Americans, that’s an important step forward. I’m glad that they made it,” Lee said.
Democratic leaders, however, described Wednesday’s action as disappointing.
“I am disappointed the governor did not follow through on his promise to end the state’s celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest and I am disappointed that more of my Republican colleagues did not join in this effort to begin healing,” said Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a black Democrat from Goodlettsville.
Under the current law in question, Tennessee governors must sign six proclamations throughout the year designating the following days of special observance: Robert E. Lee Day (January 19), Abraham Lincoln Day (February 12), Andrew Jackson Day (March 15), Confederate Decoration Day (June 3), Nathan Bedford Forrest Day (July 13) and Veterans’ Day (November 11).
Lawmakers have also refused to consider removing a bust of Forrest displayed prominently between the House and Senate chambers.
On Thursday, roughly 100 protesters gathered near the state Capitol demanding the bust be removed.
Lee has declined to weigh in on whether he supports such efforts. Meanwhile, lawmakers spiked two proposals on Tuesday that would call for the bust’s removal.
“What’s really important is that we not draw lines and choose sides. It’s that we understand that these answers are complicated and they require dialogue,” Lee said.
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