When the city of Memphis found itself legally unable to take down two decades-old Confederate statues, lawmakers didn’t give up: They found a loophole.
After months of legal wrangling — including passing new city ordinances — Memphis finally removed its monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest on Wednesday night.
“The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum,” Memphis Mayor Tim Strickland said in a statement. “So I want you to hear me loud and clear: Though some of our city’s past is painful, we are all in charge of our city’s future. Black and white, young and old — every single one of us. That’s the symbolism for which I want this day to be remembered.”
Each of the statues were placed during times of increased racial tension in the United States. The statute of Forrest — who also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan — was erected in 1904, during the Jim Crow era of segregation, while Davis’ statue arrived amid the civil rights movement, in 1964.
Thanks to the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, the city of Memphis was legally unable to remove the monuments to Davis and Forrest without the permission of the Tennessee Historical Commission. That commission, however, denied Memphis’ request for a waiver to take down Forrest’s statue.
So the Memphis City Council passed multiple pieces of legislation to allow the city to sell parts of the two parks where the two Confederate statues stand to a local nonprofit for $1,000 each. Unsurprisingly, that price tag is less than market value.
The nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace, then handled the removal of the monuments.
Greenspace applied for incorporation in October, the New York Times noted, suggesting that it was created just to buy the parks. The group, which is headed by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, will continue to operate the parks. (Memphis sits in Shelby County.)
Monument supporters, however, denounced the city’s management of the removal, and the move will likely lead to a lawsuit, USA Today reported.
“It is a deliberate attempt to avoid the state law, and the city is breaking the law,” Lee Millar, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told a local news outlet.
In his statement, however, Strickland defended the sale as completely legal. “There are two things you should know as it relates to the law: The law allows a city to sell land to a private entity,” he said. “The law allows a private entity to remove items such as statues from its own land.”
The move follows several other cities’ decision to remove their own Confederate landmarks, which supporters argue honors U.S. history and critics say uphold white supremacy. After violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia during a white supremacist-led march in August, Austin, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Lexington, Kentucky all removed some of their own Confederate statues, as did several other cities.
Many cities, including Memphis, tore down their monuments under the cover of darkness to avoid crowds and controversy. But those often fall flat. In Memphis, for example, activists gathered to watch the takedown and to applaud taking another step, they said, toward ending centuries of celebrating slave owners.
“This is something that happens once in a lifetime,” Tennessee state Rep. Raumesh Akbari told USA Today. “When I heard the news, I was like, ‘I want to be a part of this. I want to see with my own eyes. I don’t want to see it on Facebook, I don’t want to see it on the news. I want to be able to tell this story, for myself and for future generations.’”