Returning Home to Memphis, Where Two Confederate Statues Are No More

I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. I returned home this month for my brother’s memorial service. The city looked different.

The Memphis State University of my youth is now the University of Memphis. The mayor no longer owns a barbecue chain. The city, bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, still spreads out to the east, but what used to be the beginning of farms and wooded areas is now part of a developed extension of city and county. A park that used to be called Nathan Bedford Forrest Park is now called Health Sciences Park.

But Memphis is still Memphis.

The economic and social divide of today looks like that of my childhood. The city’s history of racial division goes back to at least 1819, when the city was founded. Memphis was a hub for slave trading before the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated here. My niece has white high school friends who refer to the city as “Memphrica” — an allusion to Africa that reflects the fact the Memphis is 64 percent Black.

So I was surprised when I heard about Confederate statues in Memphis coming down. I thought back to when I was 5 years old and first asked my parents about them.

My parents, my older brother, and I were driving downtown. We had gotten barbecue and chitlins (“chitterlings” – if you don’t know, don’t ask) at a place by the river and were heading home. We passed what I now know was Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. I saw a statute of a man riding the biggest horse I had ever seen. I asked, “Who is that on that big horse?”

My young parents, then in their 30s, got quiet. Something was wrong.

I now realize they probably had no idea what to say. How could they explain America’s legacy of slavery, racial hatred, and oppression to a 5-year-old boy? How much detail was enough for a young child? What facts could explain honoring the man on the horse if he sold people as property and killed American soldiers to keep doing it?

The horse and the man were still there when I arrived in Memphis this month, but just days after I left monuments to Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest were removed from places of honor in the city. I had new questions about the man and horse. How did the removal happen? And what does it mean?

The City Council, which is made up of seven Black and six white members, voted unanimously to sell the parks where the monuments stood to a nonprofit entity that quickly removed them. The Chamber of Commerce supported the removal. The New York Times quoted Mayor Jim Strickland, the city’s first white mayor in nearly a quarter-century, crediting a “unified effort” that “stands in stark contrast to what happened in 1968,” when Dr. King was fatally shot.

It is not that simple. Memphis politicians seem uncomfortable admitting the critical role played by Tami Sawyer, a Black woman who is a director of Teach for America. Sawyer lead a movement that empowered community voices to tell city government that it was time for the monuments to go. The New York Times described Sawyer’s advocacy as “persistent and sometimes disruptive.”

Well, it takes persistence to disrupt a false racial narrative that has for decades blocked “unified efforts” for racial justice.

“I think there’s a lot of people that are trying in Memphis to bridge this racial divide,” Sawyer said. “But I think that we have to have honest conversations about why that divide exists. Too often people want to say, ‘Let’s get to the healing,’ but not call out the years of systemic oppression that continue to exist.”

America clings to a false narrative about slavery — that it wasn’t that bad or that extensive, that it ended conclusively more than a century ago, that the Civil War was about states’ rights or something else — because we are desperate to avoid confronting the truth about our history.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I learned people are rarely just one thing. They can be wonderful in one way, contemptable in another. A historical marker at the site of Forrest’s home in Memphis notes, “Following marriage in 1845 he came to Memphis, where his business enterprises made him wealthy.”

“Business enterprises.” Forrest was a slave trader. He peddled human flesh for a price and he got filthy rich from it. His home in Memphis was right across the street from his slave market, so he could sell human beings into bondage and then stroll home to be a Southern gentleman. Any wonderful personal qualities were greatly outweighed by his defense of and contribution to white supremacy.

Slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Secession statements from Confederate states make that clear. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy said, “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Forrest is quoted in a foreword to his own biography as saying, “If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin’ for?”

Some say Forrest changed his views at the end of his life, but it really doesn’t matter. There was no engraving on the foundation of his monument saying “he was a white supremacist who changed his views and tried to do penance for his sins against humanity.” The monuments to Forrest and Davis honored them simply as warriors for the Confederacy.

The truth is that removal of these monuments will not educate, feed, or free from prison even one person of color. But the admission of the true nature of our racialized past is a necessary part of real structural change leading to racial justice.

They owe penance for their sins, but all that’s left of them are statues. The legacy of the sins remain, so it is just that the statues come down.

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Anonymous

Just how do you know the Truth about the Civil WAR by the time your grandchildren read about the Civil war it will be completely rewittten,but that's what you want Right?

Anonymous

He was a product of the time, location, and social status he was born into. People like to get all high and mighty about how ethically superior they are to historical features but if either of us had been born in the same circunstances and time that bedford had our views would be close to his. If bedford had been born in the 1980s then his views would be closer to ours. I have some old school books and children's. Books from a little after bedford's time and they teach that Africans and other non-white races were Inferior. The children's books are the African safari.type ones that portray Africans as half named savage headhunters and cannibals. Adding to that, many black people would have perpetuated the image that they were inferior either for survival or because they had the view beaten into them so much that they believed it. Bedford was taught, as a child, that Africans were inferior and that it was ok, or even for their own good, to enslave them and his experiences backed up that view. In contrast, we were taught that it was wrong and our experiences, plus the current social norms, back up our view that slavery is wrong (even if many people are completely ignoring the slavery that is still happening today). In the future, people may decide that our actions were evil (possibly because we benefit.from the modern day slave trade). As society changes ethics and morals change (or the other way around.

Anonymous

Im quite sure the removal of these statues will make memphis a much better place, lord knows its a much better place than when my family moved to memphis in 1970. Those statues obviously only held memphis back and caused the racial divide there. Any fool that believes this is as big a fool as jeffery robinson is for writing the article.

Anonymous

The act of removing these hideous representations of America's history of oppression and demonization of a people is what it is about. Your voices speak loudly when you attack the author and slander efforts to eliminate reminders that the dominant race stole, ruled over, killed, raped, owned, brutalized, another race of people. Those people remain among the dominant race--that continue to do the same with the new game played out. Well, get ready, you can only kick a dog so long.

Anonymous

Memphis use to recieve rewards for City Beautiful. Now it recieves no rewards, but it does get in the top 10 of most list ie Most Dangerous Cities, Worst Cities to Raise a Family, Highest Rate of Infant Mortality, Highest Rate of STDs, Most People on Welfare and the list goes on. Most black people in this city have no sense of pride. The younger generation run around in their pajama bottoms, house slippers and their pants pulled down to their knees. That generation is the baby making, gun toting, welfare expecting, let grandma raise the kids generation. Never seen such disrespectful punks in all my life.

Anonymous

I just come here for the humor. What ridiculousness.
What was the parents' answer...?
They didn't know what the hell it was and didn't care as long as they got a check.

Anonymous

All this did was rip off a bandage to a wound that's only been festering since before either of us were born...and now the real ugliness of humanity can begin

Anonymous

Why is calling memphrica offensive if black people want to be called AFRICAN Americans.. you think it would be some heroic cry for the realization of their true debt to Africa. I wonder what black would feel like if they went to Africa and saw the conditions of that place now.. no one is excusing slavery. Terrible fucking practice that is against all humanity.. But Africa is a war zone all across it's borders. Children with loaded weapons fighting for the new slavery which is stitched into the very fabrics in our clothes and makes up precious gems.

Anonymous

How about what the Europeans did to the Indians?
What the Germans did to the Jews?
What the Mexican did to the French Canadians?
The blacks are NOT the only ones in history that got a bum rap.
Some, mentioned above, got gas chambers, experimented on, tortured, buried alive, the list goes on.
Jesus was hung on a tree that he had to walk to his hill he would die on, after he was beaten with a 9 tail whip, his gaping wounds exposed his rib, his organs and people laughed at him and made fun of him. Then they drove spikes thru his hands and feet and hung him up so he could feel the force of the pain of suffocation of his lungs filling with blood. He paid the price for ALL our sins. Whoever accepts Him as their Lord and Savior. This is the only way to STOP all the hatred in this city and the world.

Bill Black

Having grown up a white kid in the Memphis suburbs, I can *assure* you "Memphrica" is a slur meant to imply Memphis is a land of savagery, akin to the caricatured Africa you might see in Looney Tunes cartoons--or in sensationalized news coverage.

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