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This City Removed 2 Confederate Statues. Then the State Retaliated.

Inside the $250,000 fight between Memphis and Tennessee.

A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The removal of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis late last year triggered controversy.
No city likes to see its funding get cut by the state legislature. But occasionally, there’s a silver lining. 

Tennessee, like a few other Southern states, has a preservation law on the books preempting its cities from removing Confederate monuments. Even so, Memphis wanted to get rid of statues of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This year, the city is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred at a Memphis motel. “We wanted to say to the world that Memphis is not what it was 50 years ago,” says Van Turner, a member of the Shelby County Council.

The city sought permission from the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the statues, but was refused. So Memphis came up with a workaround. Turner and his allies created a new nonprofit that took ownership of the parks where the statues were located. With the state unable to preempt a nonprofit, the statues were removed. “There were a lot of lawyers involved,” Turner says. “Everybody wanted to comply with the letter of the law.”

But that isn’t the end of the story. Next year, Memphis will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding. Karen Camper, who represents the city in the Tennessee House, thought the state should help pay for the commemoration, as it did for Nashville back in 1996. Working with House leaders, she came up with a plan to include $250,000 in “seed money” from the state, which would be matched by the city and the county. Camper knew there was tension “around the monuments and Memphis,” but she thought she’d gotten sign-off from all the right players.

At the very end of the session, however, a surprise budget amendment took away the money. A majority of legislators felt that by removing the Davis and Forrest statues, Memphis had violated the intent and spirit of the historic preservation law, if not exactly its letter. “Today is a demonstration that bad actions have bad consequences, and my only regret about this is it’s not to the tune of millions of dollars,” said Rep. Andy Holt.

The option of selling the parks to an entity that could get rid of the statues “was an option that was probably not intended by the state law,” concedes Worth Morgan, a member of the Memphis City Council. Yet he insists it was legal. “We believe what is honored in public spaces in our city parks is for us to say,” Morgan says. Having made the decision to remove the statues, even in the face of a clear Tennessee statute and denial of permission from a state commission, Morgan is perfectly willing to accept the consequences. “Honestly, for me, if $250,000 is the price for all of us to move on and be done, then hallelujah,” he says.

Camper also says she doesn’t mind that the money ended up becoming a “sacrificial lamb.” The vote to remove the money, she believes, puts the matter to rest, meaning the argument about the monuments themselves is now history. “I have no problem with losing that $250,000,” Camper says. “I think it has energized Memphis in a way we could not have foreseen.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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