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Tennessee Capitol Commission Votes To Remove Bust Of Confederate General And Other Military Figures

Sergio Martinez-Beltran | WPLN

After hearing impassioned speeches from Black lawmakers, the Tennessee State Capitol Commission voted for the first time to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

And, in a last-minute vote, the group also voted to take out two other military figures from the capitol’s second floor.

The initial proposal — of removing Forrest— has been championed by Black Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, for years, as well as by activists.

“These monuments represent the values that unite us and the moral principles that guide our society,” Gilmore told the panel. “Nathan Beford Forrest does not represent the values of Tennessee.”

Forrest was a Confederate general and believed to be one of the first Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan.

Gilmore explained how she feels every time she walks the hall of the state capitol and sees the bust.

“Tears come to my eye every time I get off the elevator and look at the Forrest bust,” Gilmore said. “I could hear the bells and the cries of the 200 surrendered soldiers. Soldiers that were surrendered but where still slaughtered by his command.”

The Commission voted 9-2 for removal. A proposal presented by Comptroller Justin Wilson to remove all military figures out of the second floor of the state capitol was added to the initial proposal.

The three constitutional officers — who all voted against the removal in 2017 — voted for it.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and House Rep. Matthew Hill voted against the removal.

The petition will now go to the Tennessee Historical Commission for a final vote. They won't consider it until at least three months.

One of the reasons why the petition passed this year is due to the behind-the-scenes work that Gov. Bill Lee did to set up a vote.

He appointed two Black men, and reappointed a third Black man to the commission.

Hallerin Hill, a Black radio host and one of Gov. Bill Lee’s newest appointees, also voted for the removal. He pushed back against the argument that taking out the bust would erase history.

“This would not be a move to erase history, otherwise you wouldn’t spend a $160 million building a state-of-the-art, almost national worthy museum that enshrines in the museum a separate section for the Civil War,” Hill said.

But there were members that made their plead for the bust to stay.

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, asked the commission for the bust to stay.

Leader Johnson, who has a vote on the commission, said he polled members of the Senate and that 19 members said they wanted the bust to stay. He said his vote represented the will of the upper chamber.

“I’m not compelled to do that,” Johnson said.  “I’m not compelled to poll my members and vote according to their wishes but I felt like it was important to have that conversation with all of the members of my body that I respect so much.”

Concerns About Lack Of Access To Meeting

The public was not allowed inside the room where the meeting took place, even though it was at a public building.

Only the press, state staff and lawmakers were allowed. A spokesman of the Commission chair told WPLN News the room could only be filled at half-capacity based on social distancing guidelines.

The meeting was streamed online.

Justin Jones, one of the activists who remained outside the room throughout the meeting, celebrated the decision.

“We’ve been fighting for this for five years,” Jones told WPLN News. “It’s a big victory for the movement, but is not enough. This is just one step forward.”

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.
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