Until late in the evening this past Wednesday, December 20th, prominent parks in Memphis, Tennessee, displayed two large monuments to the Confederacy. One featured Confederate President Jefferson Davis, describing him as a “true American patriot,” and another depicted Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member Nathan Bedford Forrest in full battle regalia astride a horse.
On Wednesday, however, Memphis’s City Council voted unanimously to sell the parks housing the monuments, Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park, to a local nonprofit. That sale was necessary in light of the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act,” a state law prohibiting removal of memorials on public land regardless of local preference or resolution. In October, the Tennessee Historical Commission had denied a request by Memphis — a city whose population is 64 percent African-American — to waive the law.
Within hours of the council’s vote, cranes and police officers were sent to the parks to begin the removal. As the work was underway, Memphis residents rejoiced and sang songs like “Hit the road jack.” Tami Sawyer, a local organizer who had advocated for the monuments’ removal, said that “to finally get to this moment is overwhelming.”
Mayor Jim Strickland stated: “History is being made in Memphis tonight,” and announced, “though some of our city’s past is painful, we are all in charge of our city’s future.” Tennessee Republican State House leaders, however, plan to start a formal investigation into the city’s actions, alleging that they are a “clear infringement” of state law. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has also threatened suit. But Democratic Representative Steve Cohen and Mayor Strickland have continued to affirm the legality of the sale, noting that the city had been considering privatizing the park for a year.
The removal occurs before the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis and as part of a wider conversation examining the place of Confederate monuments around the country. Mayor Strickland credited a wave of support in the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year as a catalyst for the monuments’ removal. As Representative Cohen explained, such tributes are “not representative of Memphis today” and are an “affront” to its citizens.