Where in the World Is Nathan Bedford Forrest? - Articles

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Posted by: William Haltom on Apr 1, 2018

Journal Issue Date: Apr 2018

Journal Name: April 2018 - Vol. 54, No. 4

My children are all grown now, but when they were little, they enjoyed watching a PBS television program titled Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I enjoyed the show, too, but not as much as I did watching Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street.

I’m now thinking about producing my own TV show titled Where in the World Is Nathan Bedford Forrest?

For 40 years, I saw Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest every morning as I was proceeding down Union Avenue in Memphis driving to work.

General Forrest was always on horseback just west of the University of Tennessee Medical School facing south and looking ready for battle.

I also often saw Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He was standing in a downtown Memphis park just a couple blocks north of the University of Memphis Law School.

When I saw them (both, of course, in the form of statues), they sometimes reminded me of my great, great grandfather, Bartley Garey. I obviously never met him, but I grew up hearing stories about how he fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Shiloh. There was never a statue erected in his honor, so I never saw him.

But on the night of Dec. 20, 2017, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis both left Memphis. At least we think they left Memphis. It’s not really clear where they are these days.

They were evicted from their respective locations in downtown Memphis parks. The eviction was accomplished by a team of lawyers led by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and City Attorney Bruce McMullen. (Full disclosure: They are both good friends of mine and a couple of my law partners assisted them in the eviction efforts.)

For months leading up to the eviction of General Forrest and President Davis, Memphis city leaders had petitioned the Tennessee Historical Commission to allow the removal of the statues. The Commission is the state agency that oversees the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a state law that prohibits the removal, relocation or renaming of memorials on public property.
Last October, the Historical Commission voted to deny the City of Memphis’s application for a waiver of the law, thereby prohibiting the removal of the statues of Forrest and Davis.

Mayor Strickland and his team of lawyers were supported in their efforts by the Memphis City Council. They strongly felt that the statues of Forrest and Davis needed to come down before April 4, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

And so, after intense behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering, Mayor Strickland and City Attorney McMullen obtained the authorization from the Memphis City Council to sell the two Memphis parks where the monuments of Forrest and Davis were located to a nonprofit led by Memphis lawyer Van Turner, a Shelby County Commissioner.

Within hours after the City Council approved the sale, cranes were moved into the Memphis parks, and Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis were moved to an undisclosed location at the direction of the parks’ new owners.

The legal battle of course is not over. It is being fought in a Davidson County Chancery Courtroom, before the Tennessee Historical Commission, and even in the halls of the legislature where a number of Tennessee lawmakers are outraged at the City of Memphis’ treatment of these two Confederate icons.

As the great grandson of Confederate soldier Bartley Garey, I hope this conflict can be resolved by finding a new home for Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis outside of my hometown of Memphis.

I believe in the conservative concept of the power of local government. Citizens of Memphis or Nashville or Knoxville or Chattanooga or Pulaski or Milan should be able to make their own decisions about issues such as parks and monuments without lawmakers or bureaucrats in Washington or Nashville telling them what to do. If the Memphis City Council wants to sell its parks to private citizens who then remove monuments from the parks they own, I figure it’s their business.

And if another city — say Pulaski, birthplace of the KKK — wants to erect monuments in a park called Six Confederate Flags over Nathan Bedford Forrest, I figure that’s their business.

I understand the positions of each side in this matter. As a life-long Memphian who lived through the tragic events of April 4, 1968, I am empathetic to the feelings of my mayor and my City Council and the majority of my fellow Memphians who felt the Confederate war hero statues needed to be removed.

On the other hand, I love history, and I understand the position of the late great Civil War Historian Shelby Foote that history needs to be preserved.

And so as a raging moderate, I hope this matter will be resolved by relocating the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis to Shiloh, a place where they will probably both feel at home, and their stories can be preserved.

It would be a monumental shift, which I hope would be supported by all Tennesseans.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.