NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The effort to remove a bust of a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader from the Tennessee Capitol cleared its final hurdle Thursday, with state leaders approving the final vote needed to allow the statue to be relocated to a museum.
The seven-member State Building Commission voted 5-2 to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust as well as the busts of two other Tennessee military leaders.
While Gov. Lee and others voted yes, Lt. Gov Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton voted no.
“Trying to judge past generations’ actions based on today’s values and the evolution of societies is not an exercise I am willing to do because I think it is counterproductive,” Sexton said in a statement. “It is much more productive to learn from our past and not repeat the imperfections of the past. Any attempt to erase the past only aligns society with the teaching of communism, which believes the present dominates the past.”
The Forrest bust was first installed at the Capitol in 1978 and has sparked protests and demonstrations ever since. Some have called for adding more historical context to the bust, but others, including Gov. Bill Lee, recently fought to have it moved to the state’s history museum.
WZTV FOX17 in Nashville reported social activist Justin Jones attended Thursday’s vote. Longtime Civil Rights activist Kwame Lillard, who mentored Jones, was the first to stage a protest at the bust when it was first installed in the 1970s. Jones said Gov. Lee’s support of the bust’s relocation was because of public pressure and says it’s time the state moves from focusing on statues to focusing on statutes.
Tennessee’s Black legislative caucus has been particularly vocal about how painful it has been to walk by the bust, displayed prominently between the House and Senate chamber, as they carry out their work each day.
“Much like this bust symbolizes the pain and suffering of slavery and terror, removing the likeness of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a place of honor in Tennessee’s Capitol is a symbol for much needed reconciliation,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Black lawmaker from Memphis and the Senate’s Democratic caucus chairwoman. “No doubt we have work to do to achieve equality and justice for all people, but today’s vote shows that progress is possible.”
Earlier this year, Tennessee’s Historical Commission voted 25-1 to move the bust to the Tennessee State Museum, noting it was better equipped to furnish the appropriate historical context.
The committee also stated that the interest of commemorating a long-dead historical figure was outweighed by the interest of thousands of citizens who find the commemoration hurtful.
However, top Republican leaders argued that the bust could not be removed without approval from the State Building Commission. House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally both expressed disappointment with Thursday’s outcome.
“No one is arguing that Forrest is not a problematic figure. He is. But there is more to his story. His life eventually followed a redemptive arc which I hope is outlined in great detail in our state museum,” McNally said in a statement, adding that the vote signaled that some advocates will likely find another monument to “demand that we again kneel at the altar of political correctness.”
The AP contributed to this story.
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