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

Some people have said the statues should have stayed. To that I asked them, "what other losing army in history was allowed to erect statues?". They had no reply nor should there have been statues put up in first place. Winning sides write history, not the losing side.

Anonymous

Wallace in England
Crazy Horse in the US
Ernst Thelman in Germany
Bandera in the Ukraine
Kolchak in Russia

Just to name a few

Frankly that list is not for you as you obviously lack a decent education

Do some studying and reading but for the time being stay the hell away from the American history !

Anonymous

It's history, end of story! Let's get rid of the North(sarcasm) because they killed more people than anyone in the civil war. People focus way to much on race and that's why race will always be an issue. That's what we are teaching our kids so therefore it will be a revolving door, grow up people it's 2017. Statues are history....life lessons!

Anonymous

It's still amazes me that in this day and age where practically anyone can acsess on line librarys; not peoples boast opinions and misleading stories , to see the true reasons the C.S.A. succeeded from the union was over the north trying to block the south's ability to free trade with England, and France with exporting cotton which was the country's largest commodity at the time , the felt it should be sent to the textile mills in the north where they could have a monopoly on export of the " white gold" as it was called ,the north controlled the railroad, the river barges and most importantly the ships to transport ,if they couldnt get the cotton to the coast to ship ,it was worthless ,so the north had them by the proverbial balls ! So instead of letting them take ove the most lucrative business in the country they succeeded from the union , so then the north had a brilliant idea, okay if they wont bend we will break them let them try and plant and pick cotton with no labor , so emansapation was writen into law , if the south had given in the north would of had no problem making money off the backs of slaves ,so in a odd way the C.S.A. by resisting totalitarianism from the north are responsable for the end of slavery ,how's that for irony!
There's no telling what this country would look like today if the south had just bent over and took it and not fought back against the north ,but we will never know huh ... fact check me if you want I wrote a paper on this in college. Peace

Anonymous

The ACLU is as rasicts as the KKK ever thought about being. They pretend to be for everyone's rights but just look at their record. They are actually Marxist , that is why they stand against any thing American. We should not put up with such organizations and shine the light of truth on them.

Anonymous

Such a over simplification of the core issues in Memphis and any other segregated city. The statues are now gone, done in a less than collaborative way, but poverty, poor public schools, single parent households, crime still remain. Now what? For starters how about some self help vs being 'the victim'. The author should transfer back to Memphis, engage the community, be part of the solution vs popping in for family, tell us how f'd up things are and head back to his 'safe place'.

Armando

The legacy of slavery segragation and hatred is what the Democratic Party values we’re back then. You are spreading a false narrative.

Big Eddie

So if we tear down ,That old raggedy motel were king was killed ,will that change. History ,or make the city any better or any safer.I think not.schools failing, fewer police,more trash in the streets,black mayor for 25 years,black leaders on the council,white flight,crimes higher than ever,lower tax base,looks good Memphis,

Anonymous

Rewritten History and destroying It doesn't make things better in Memphis! IF only if you worried about out of control teens, abuse in homes,poor uneducated, crime all over in Memphis, thugs raping old white women just trying to take a walk,and break ins,Black on Black Crimes, ,Now that would be helping racist Blacks in Memphis move forward! POOR Judgment call on Strickland 's part!

Anonymous

"The truth is that removal of these monuments will not educate, feed, or free from prison even one person of color." - yes, but if all the time and energy spent on tearing down statues and demanding racial justice was spent on helping African-American children get a decent education THAT would raise them out of poverty and give them the ability to stick up for themselves in society. Can you imagine if every child of color in Memphis (or Detroit, or Chicago, or in the USA) was as educated as you are? Thus as able to defend THEMSELVES as you are?

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