Natalie Allison, Tennessean, July 22, 2021
The bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a controversial fixture in the Tennessee state Capitol since the late 1970s, is coming down.
The State Building Commission on Thursday gave approval for the relocation of the Forrest bust to the Tennessee State Museum, a final step in a process that has taken more than a year since Gov. Bill Lee first said it was time for the statue to be moved.
“It’s been a year long journey, and this is an appropriate step in that process,” Lee said prior to the Building Commission meeting Thursday morning. “It’s most important to me that we followed the process. We talked about that from the very beginning.”
Members of the legislative Black Caucus gathered outside the hearing room, and then by the bust, after the vote to celebrate.
Crews began preparations for removal shortly after the meeting, though the bust is expected to be removed from the building on Friday.
Following a gradual shift in position on the issue since he ran for governor in 2018, Lee called for the relocation of the bust from the Capitol last July, saying he understood that Forrest’s legacy represents pain for African Americans.
The statue was not an early furnishing in the Tennessee Capitol, which was constructed just prior to the Civil War, but rather was installed in 1978.
In addition to Forrest, the state will also relocate the busts of U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves to form a military exhibit at the state museum. The measure was approved last summer by the State Capitol Commission, and then overwhelmingly in March by the Tennessee Historical Commission.
The governor made a rare appearance at a Thursday morning meeting of the Building Commission, of which he officially serves as chairman but does not usually attend. The commission makes decisions about property owned by the state.
The House and Senate speakers were the only ones to oppose removal in the 5-2 vote.
“This is not the end. It is the beginning,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, said in a statement released immediately following the vote. “The left will move on to the next figure or monument and demand that we again kneel at the altar of political correctness.”
Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, said McNally on Tuesday met with Black members of the Senate ahead of the meeting, a discussion she called “positive” but noted her disappointment with McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton voting against the measure.
“Certainly Nathan Bedford Forrest does not represent the values of Tennessee,” Gilmore said. “I’m pleased that those people on the commission had enough courage to respect the voice of the Tennesseans.”
Sexton after the meeting released a statement explaining that only “one perfect person” has walked the Earth, and Forrest should not be judged based on how society has evolved since.
“Any attempt to erase the past only aligns society with the teaching of communism, which believes the present dominates the past,” said Sexton, R-Crossville.
He said the legislature “will be working on revising current law to include a more significant voice of those elected,” presumably meaning the General Assembly will seek to take away the governor’s authority to influence similar decisions on statue removal.
Lee as a candidate and shortly after his election in 2018 said he was opposed to taking down Confederate statues, telling The Tennessean at the time “removal of monuments is not the best approach.”