The Tennessee Capitol Commission blocked Gov. Bill Haslam’s request Friday, Sept. 1, to move the embattled Nathan Bedford Forrest bust out of the State Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum.
In a 5-7 vote, the commission rejected a motion by chairman Larry Martin, commissioner of the Department of Finance & Administration, to seek a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to relocate the Forrest monument, which is located a few steps from the House Chamber.
Haslam urged the Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission to take action in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest where one person was killed and numerous people were injured. Two state troopers also died there when their helicopter crashed.
Based on national civil unrest stemming from the deadly Charlottesville protests, Martin said he felt it is time to move the Forrest bust from the Capitol to a place where it can be preserved with a historical context displayed.
Comptroller Justin Wilson and Secretary of State Tre Hargett, members of the Capitol Commission, spoke against moving the bust, saying they didn’t want a group of unelected officials to overturn a 1970s vote by the General Assembly to place the Forrest bust in the Capitol.
Treasurer David Lillard, who recommended rotating historical pieces into the Capitol, voted against the measure with Wilson and Hargett, along with Rep. Curtis Johnson and Sen. Jack Johnson. Johnson said he feared the commission would be faced with coming back at its next meeting to consider removing the statue of President Andrew Jackson from the Capitol grounds.
Commission members Howard Gentry and Reavis Mitchell, the only two black members of the panel, both voted to request relocation. Gentry recalled his early years of visiting the State Capitol in the days when it had restrooms for colored people only.
“I want to be free of those thoughts,” Gentry said. “I don’t need a history lesson.”
The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act requires the Capitol Commission to make the request to the Tennessee Historical Commission. A two-thirds vote by that group would be needed to move the bust of Forrest, who has a tortured legacy, one in which he made a fortune as a slave trader before the Civil War, then was named the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan afterward, before possibly pursuing some reconciliation with the black community in Memphis.
After the meeting, Democratic Reps. Harold Love of Nashville and G.A. Hardaway of Memphis, members of the Black Caucus, said they plan to introduce legislation in 2018 to remove the Forrest bust.