The city of Memphis got rid of two Confederate statues Wednesday night, after a Tennessee two-step around a state law designed to prevent just that. It was a surprise maneuver that left the Sons of Confederate Veterans sputtering in anger and proclaiming to all who would listen: “Memphis stabbed you all in the back.”
But James G. Patterson, commander of the Tennessee Division of the Sons, advised his compatriots to “stay away” from the city for the night. “I would say that the Memphis police will not tolerate any action around these statues.”
Indeed, the flashing lights cutting through the dark from scores of police vehicles provided theatrical lighting for the cranes that showed up for the formal banishment of two Confederate heroes in the city where Martin Luther King was assassinated almost 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968.
The first to go was the equestrian statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, especially loathed by many today because he was also a slave trader and a founder and “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. The statue was placed in a city-owned park in 1904 during the Jim Crow era of segregation.
About a mile and a half away and about an hour or so later, a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was hoisted from its base in another city park. The statue of Davis, who lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878, was erected in downtown Memphis in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Mayor Jim Strickland, in a statement also posted on Facebook, said the city was particularly anxious to get the job done now, in advance of the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
“The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum,” he wrote. He added, “Our community wants to reserve places of reverence for those we honor.”
Memphis was following in the footsteps of numerous other cities which have rid themselves of Confederate symbols over the past few years, a move prompted by the fatal 2015 shooting of nine African Americans in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by white supremacy sympathizer Dylann Roof.
While the removals of the Davis and Forrest memorials had been discussed, debated and litigated for a while, their demise came suddenly. It was “quite unexpected and quite extraordinary,” Commercial Appeal reporter Daniel Connolly said in a video from the scene.
It was also, legally, rather clever.
The dispute over the fate of the statues had been percolating in the courts after removal was blocked in October by the Tennessee Historical Commission using its powers under the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016.
That law said that “No statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, or plaque” erected “on public property” in honor of certain military conflicts and their heroes may be removed without the permission of two-thirds of the board of the commission. In October, the commission denied Memphis a waiver that would have allowed the city to remove the Confederate statues. The city was in the process of challenging the decision.
But with the anniversary of King’s assassination approaching, an event that will bring worldwide attention and thousands of visitors to Memphis, city officials, including Strickland, were in a rush and decided to work around the law.
Focusing on the law’s key phrase, protecting statues on “public property,” Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner and others set up a private nonprofit corporation called Memphis Greenspace Inc.
On Wednesday, without fanfare, the City Council approved a measure authorizing the mayor to sell the two parks with the statues to the private group, for $1,000 each, which he promptly did.
In the morning, they were on public property. By the afternoon, they weren’t.
By nightfall, the parks with the statues had been sold to the newly minted nonprofit, which sent in the cranes.
Patterson was furious.
“This has been a well-organized, behind the scenes plan by the city,” he said in a Facebook post. “They deliberately did this after hours to prevent action on our part. State officials have been contacted and will address this immediately.”
By then, it was too late.
Council member Janis Fullilove, who favored the removal, called it a “crazy, crazy, crazy night,” according to the Commercial Appeal. “It’s really going down in history that this is the night they are going to take the statues down. It’s a historic moment.”
A cheering crowd sang as Davis was placed in the back of a truck at 10:45 p.m. and driven away. Among the songs, according to the Commercial Appeal, was that old standby: “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.”