Governor Bill Lee, on the eve of a vote by the State Capitol Commission (SCC) on the fate of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust, said it should be moved from the second floor of the State Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum.
The consideration of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust is the only item up for discussion by the SCC WebEx meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. on July 9, according to the agenda.
The issue was taken up during the February 20 meeting of the SCC. After much testimony, the then-Commissioner of Finance and Administration and the SCC Stuart McWhorter announced that with a vacancy on the commission, no votes would be taken out of fairness to such an important topic and issue, The Tennessee Star reported.
The bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was placed in a vacant niche in the State Capitol in 1978, the result of a 1973 joint resolution sponsored by beloved Democrat Senator Douglas Henry. The measure passed unanimously in the Democrat-controlled Senate and with an 87-0 vote in the then-Democrat majority House.
Senator Henry’s resolution said that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was Tennessee’s greatest military hero on the Confederate side in the War between the States, but no bust of him is on display in the Capitol. This, despite a bust of Tennessee’s greatest military hero on the federal side, Admiral Farragut, occupying a niche on the second floor of the Capitol.
The resolution indicated that Sons of Confederate Veterans Joseph E. Johnston Camp No. 28, of which Senator Henry was a member, evidenced a desire to procure an appropriate bust of General Forrest for display in the niche.
During the last two years, several Democrats of the current General Assembly have proposed legislative efforts recommending the removal of the bust, although all such efforts have failed, despite numerous hours of deliberation and heated debate over the issue.
Lee said that the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust “has spurred a heated debate that began long before all the national ruckus on monuments that we are seeing play out today.”
He went on to say that the issue of the Forrest bust has been going on for the last 40 years, and “is very different from the destructive tide that has swept the nation in recent weeks that has been about defacing property and denying history.”
Contrasting that to the SCC, Lee said that process is “the opposite of what we are seeing play out nationally.”
Lee said that as the SCC meets Thursday to take up the issue of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust and its future in the statehouse, the meeting “has been more than a year in the making as appointments have been made to the Capitol Commission and options for the bust have been evaluated with respect to those who want to see it remain in the statehouse and those who want to see it moved to an alternate location.”
Most loud amongst those who want the bust removed is left-wing activist Justin Jones, who protested the presence of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust on the legislative level of the State Capitol back in February 2019, The Star reported, and more recently led a protester takeover of Legislative Plaza over a period of a couple of weeks until such time as Lee met with them to hear their grievances.
The SCC, which meets on an as-needed basis, is comprised of 12 members: Three members of the governor’s cabinet; the state’s three Constitutional officers; one member from each of the two chambers of the General Assembly; a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission; and, a governor-appointed private citizen from each of the state’s three grand divisions.
Currently, the membership of the SCC includes Butch Eley, Commissioner, Finance and Administration and State Capitol Commission Chairman; Christi Branscom, Commissioner, General Services; David Salyers, Commissioner, Environment and Conservation; Tre Hargett, Secretary of State; David Lillard, State Treasurer; Justin Wilson, Comptroller of the Treasury; Jack Johnson, Legislative Member of the Senate; Matthew Hill, Legislative Member of the House; Howard Gentry, Private Citizen – Middle Tennessee; Hallerin Hill, Private Citizen – East Tennessee; and Dr. Logan Hampton – Private Citizen – West Tennessee.
The Tennessee Historical Commission (THC) seat on the SCC remains vacant, as it was for the February 20 meeting.
The issue was last taken up by the SCC in September 2017, on the heels of the civil unrest surrounding the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia.
At the time, a motion was made to establish a three-person subcommittee that would prepare a written petition to the THC, presumably to move the bust. The Tennessee Historical Commission has the final say-so in the movement or placement of any statues or monuments.
Those SCC members who voted against the motion and are still serving on the Commission were Hargett, Lillard, Wilson and Johnson.
Voting in favor and still sitting on the SCC was private citizen Howard Gentry.
Gentry was a Governor Bill Haslam appointee to the SCC and reappointed by Lee. The two other private citizens are also Lee appointees as are the Governor’s three cabinet members.
The three Constitutional officers, ex-officio members of the SCC, are elected to their Constitutional offices by the General Assembly.
While Johnson has sat on the SCC for several years, Hill is a more recent appointee, replacing Representative Curtis Johnson in the position.
Lee endorsed Hill this week in his re-election bid for the House 7th District in a two-way Republican primary.
The 9 a.m. meeting of the SCC on July 9 can be watched here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.