Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee could have saved the state considerable anguish had he declined to sign the proclamation honoring slave trader, Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Yes, state law says it is the governor’s “duty” each year to proclaim July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day,” but some laws were made to be broken. It’s hard to imagine any real consequences would have resulted from a refusal to use his pen. Lee might have mustered some moral courage and shown the world that Tennessee is ready to evolve.
Instead, Lee’s signature kept Tennessee on the wrong side of history for yet another year, which was made abundantly clear by the backlash. Even members of Lee’s own party — notably conservative U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — were quick to condemn the governor’s decision.
In the wake of the controversy, Lee reversed course last week when he said he would work toward changing the law, telling Press Staff Writer Brandon Paykamian that Forrest had “a part of his history that’s very painful for Tennesseans.”
It’s apparently not painful enough, since calls in recent years to remove a bust of Forrest from the state Capitol have fallen on deaf ears in the Legislature. Lee’s predecessor, Bill Haslam, advocated the bust’s relocation to a museum during his tenure, as did U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former governor. In his campaign for governor last year, Lee expressed opposition to removing the Forrest bust, saying it would be “a mistake to whitewash history.”
But that’s exactly what Tennessee does with Forrest. Honoring him in any form or fashion whitewashes and perpetuates our racist past.
Tennessee has been whitewashing Forrest since July 13, 1921, the 100th anniversary of his birth. Until 50 years ago, the day was even an official Tennessee holiday.
Paykamian tried to pin down some local legislators’ positions on the Forrest issue last week. Only state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, responded, and he offered up a noncommittal statement about not hiding from the past and not celebrating parts of it either.
Tennesseans should demand more definitive and courageous actions from their leaders. If the state ever is to move past its backwoods reputation, it must stop giving people across the country reason to believe the stereotype. Our ability to grow and diversify the state’s economy rests on making Tennessee an inviting place to work and live, not a place hostile to minorities.
This cannot happen while we continue to honor the likes of Forrest. That’s not to say Tennessee’s history in the Confederacy should be erased, hidden or downplayed, but that it should be held in proper context. History is only as good as the lessons we learn from it, and Tennessee should have learned long ago that the racism and brutality of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan are nothing to celebrate.
The Legislature should act on the governor’s newfound sense of principle regarding Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, and while it’s at it, it should move the Forrest bust from the Capitol to a museum where it belongs.
Given his adherence to the law this year, we cannot help but wonder what Lee would do next July 13 if a change in the law were to fail in the next legislative session.
Meanwhile, the same law that honors Forrest will do the same for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Jan. 19.