Confederate Statues Come Down in Memphis to the Tune of 'Na, Na, Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Goodbye'

by | December 21, 2017

By Ryan Poe

The city of Memphis sold two public parks containing Confederate monuments to a nonprofit Wednesday in a massive, months-in-the-planning operation to take the statues down overnight.

The City Council unanimously approved the sale of Health Science Park, home of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, and its easement on Fourth Bluff Park, home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for $1,000 each to Memphis Greenspace Inc. Fourth Bluff, or Memphis Park, is owned by a group called The Overton Heirs.

The sale -- which is almost certain to result in a lawsuit from statue supporters -- allows Greenspace to legally do what the city of Memphis cannot: Remove the statues from their visible perches in the parks, Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen said. He said they would be stored in an undisclosed location for security reasons.

"Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park have been sold," Mayor Jim Strickland said in a social media post soon after the vote. Operations on those sites tonight are being conducted by a private entity and are compliant with state law. We will have further updates later tonight."

The nonprofit, which is led by Shelby County Commissioner and attorney Van Turner, brought in a crane to remove the Forrest statue first at around 6 p.m.

Greenspace signed a contract with Strickland on Friday that requires them to continue operating the park as a park, McMullen confirmed Wednesday. He said he knew of no plans for the nonprofit to sell the parks back to the city.

After the vote, Memphis police quickly deployed from the riverfront area near the Interstate 40 welcome center in Downtown and cordoned off the parks with yellow crime scene tape. Crowds gathered at both locations as word spread via social media.

The statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest was lifted off its base, suspended in the air and by 9:10 p.m. it was settled on a truck. A chant of "the people united will never be defeated" spread through the crowd.

Council member Janis Fullilove, who voted for the ordinance, said it was a "crazy, crazy, crazy night."

"It's really going down in history that this is the night they are going to take the statues down," she said. "It's a historic moment.

City Council member Berlin Boyd came over and talked with reporters.

"We want to thank all of the business community," he said at one point, and onlookers with grassroots activist group #TakeEmDown901 began taunting him for not acknowledging their efforts, which included several high-profile, well-attended protests. Some shouted insults and curses. Boyd finished talking and walked across the street.

Tami Sawyer, a leader of #TakeEmDown901 and Democratic candidate for Shelby County Commission, credited the work of the activists who kept pressure on elected officials this year.

"This is thousands of people who came together to put names on petitions, to donate money and time ... to get arrested, to get people out of jail ... so here we are today as the year draws to a close seeing justice and righteousness happen," she said. "It means that can be possible for any of us on any of these issues as we continue to fight for equality and equity in Memphis.

After the Forrest statue was removed, she said #TakeEmDown901 is now #TookEmDown901.

"This is a step in the right direction. I am not sure it's time to take a victory lap quite yet but this is definitely something to celebrate," said the Rev. Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis. "We fought long and hard. We salute Tami Sawyer for her wonderful leadership, all of the people who have been a part of #TakeEmDown901 over the past several months, and all of the forerunners that were fighting these statues before many of us graduated from college."

Fisher said the measures that were taken by the city in order to remove the statues were things activists were proposing months ago.

Tennessee state Rep. Raumesh Akbari couldn't stay home and watch this moment unfold on social media or television.

"This is something that happens once in a lifetime. When I heard the news, I was like, I want to be a part of this. I want to see with my own eyes. I don't want to see it on Facebook, I don't want to see it on the news. I want to be able to tell this story, for myself and for future generations."

She can't predict how the legislature will react to Memphis finding a way around state law.

"I'm hoping that my colleagues in the state house respect the city and the decision it has made," Arkbari said. "Honestly, each city needs to be able to do what's best for themselves."

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, released this statement, referencing the graves of Forrest and his wife currently resting under the statue:

"I commend Mayor Strickland and the City Council for finding a way to legally remove statues from an era that is not representative of Memphis today and have remained an affront to most of the citizens of Memphis," Cohen said.

"As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, it's important that these relics of the Confederacy and defenders of slavery don't continue to be displayed in prominent places in our city. Hopefully, the Forrests will be returned to their rightful and preferred burial spot -- Elmwood Cemetery."

The city hopes to move the graves eventually as well, back to their original burial plot in Elmwood.

Strickland has long said he would consider any "legal" options for removing the statues, but wouldn't say whether he considered immediate removal an option. Strickland didn't make himself available for comment by press deadline.

The vote Wednesday followed months of frustration for city officials fighting against the state's reams of red tape that kept the statues in place despite a wave of public opposition. Council member Edmund Ford Jr. proposed a substitute ordinance that was approved without being read before or immediately after the vote, leaving the crowd in the dark about its contents or the impending police blitz around the statues.

The vote doesn't violate state sunshine laws or, because of Turner's involvement as executive director of Greenspace, state or local conflict of interest rules, McMullen said.

The Tennessee Historical Commission voted Oct. 13 to deny the city's application to remove the Forrest statue, prompting the administration to appeal the decision to Chancery Court and, separately, to argue before an administrative law judge that the city has the authority to remove the statue without a waiver. The city filed for a waiver before the state legislature expanded the scope of Tennessee Heritage Protection Act in 2016 to include monuments of historical figures.

The administration supports removing both the Forrest statue and a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The removal of the Davis statue went faster than the Forrest statue. At about 10:45 p.m. it was dangling aloft by thick yellow straps from a crane,  minutes later, the statue was settled onto the back of a truck.

The crowd of onlookers cheered and struck up songs, including "Na na na na / Na na na na / Hey hey / Goodbye!"

Workers attempting to remove at least one smaller monument inside the Riverside park where the Jefferson Davis statue stood.

With a misting rain falling, the evening's drama appeared mostly over shortly after 11 p.m.

The City Council, then-council member Strickland included, voted in 2015 to remove the Forrest statue and to move the graves of he and his wife back to their original burial plot in Elmwood Cemetery.

The Forrest statue, installed in 1904, has a long and controversial history in Memphis. Forrest was, in his later life, a pillar of Memphis society who helped steer the city toward its defining industry of shipping. But he was also a pre-war slave trader, alleged war criminal, and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan -- a group he later renounced.

Reporters Katie Fretland, Daniel Connolly and Linda Moore contributed to this report.

(c)2017 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)