The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is suing the state of Tennessee in an effort to block the removal of a bust of a Confederate general from the Capitol.
Tennessee’s State Capitol Commission last month voted to remove a bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a significant step in a decades-long fight over the controversial fixture that has remained outside the House and Senate chambers.
The new lawsuit, filed last week in Davidson County Chancery Court, argues the commission does not have the jurisdiction to decide the fate of the bust — and if it is removed, the Sons of Confederate Veterans wants it back.
Installation of the Forrest bust was spearheaded by the late Sen. Douglas Henry, a Democrat from Nashville in the 1970s. The General Assembly approved a resolution ordering a bust of Forrest be created for the Capitol, specifically directing the Tennessee Arts Commission to work with the Jo Johnston Camp No. 28 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to procure the bust.
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The bust was sculpted by Loura Jane Herndon Baxendale, who was married to a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was presented to Henry in 1978 after five years of fundraising, court documents state.
At the request of the governor, the Capitol Commission met to discuss, and ultimately voted to petition the Tennessee Historical Commission for, a waiver to relocate the Forrest bust to the Tennessee State Museum.
Confederate group argues legislation needed
But the Sons of Confederate Veterans has argued that because a Senate resolution created the bust, a similar act of legislation is needed to remove it.
“Under Tennessee Code Annotated … only a public entity that is ‘exercising control of a memorial’ may petition the commission for a waiver,” the lawsuit argues. “There is no express delegation of authority over whether the Forrest bust or the second floor of the Capitol to the Capitol Commission.”
Therefore, the Sons of Confederate Veterans argues, the commission’s vote is null and void.
If, though, the court chooses, the group also contends that since they paid for the bust in the first place, any removal would require input from the Johnston Camp on where it ends up.
Despite initially intending only to vote on the removal of Forrest’s bust, the commission in July ultimately voted in support of removing busts of U.S. Admiral David Farragut, a native Tennessean who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, and U.S. Admiral Albert Gleaves, another Tennessean who served during the Spanish-American War and World War I.
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The plan calls for all the three busts be housed in the Tennessee State Museum. The Tennessee Historical Commission must next sign off on efforts to remove the busts, where a two-thirds vote is required.
The Johnston Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans seeks the court to order that since the donation was made under the belief the bust would forever remain on the second floor of the Capitol, if it is “not so displayed … the Forrest bust must be returned” to them at the state’s expense, the group argues in court documents.
Otherwise, the suit seeks no damages but asks the court to review the resolution and statutes to determine who controls the floor and the jurisdiction over the bust.
Nashville lawyer Doug Jones, who is representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, did not return a message seeking comment on Friday. Jones previously spoke on behalf of the group during July’s hearing over the bust. At that time, he was the lone member of the public who argued against its removal.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III confirmed that office would represent the State Capitol Commission but declined further comment. The state has not filed a response to the complaint in Davidson County Chancery Court, nor has a hearing been scheduled as of Friday afternoon.
Decades of controversy over the bust
Two years after it was installed, in 1980, the Tennessee chapter of the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan gathered in front of the bust to hold a news conference to talk about their ongoing training efforts to prepare for a potential “race war,” according to Tennessean archives.
It has remained in the Capitol ever since, and has long been the target of controversy from advocates who object to memorializing Forrest as a hero in Tennessee’s past.
“It’s because this particular individual, in a particular season of his life, significantly contributed to one of the most regretful and painful chapters in our nation’s history,” Gov. Lee said of Forrest in July.
In addition to his role as a cavalry commander, Forrest was a slave trader before the Civil War and commanded Confederate soldiers at the Fort Pillow massacre. He was also an early leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
Lobbying for and funding monuments to the Confederacy is the SCV’s bread and butter, the group says in court documents.
“The SCV was founded in 1896 as a historical patriotic and non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved for future generations,” the group says in its complaint.
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The group’s local chapters, called camps, “raise funds to put commemorative markers, statues, artifacts and other works in public and private places to further its goal of preserving history,” the group explains in court documents. Camps also fund-raise for the preservation of those monuments, they said.
The Johnston Camp was founded in June 1898, the group says in the complaint.
But the organization doesn’t just fund monuments for simple historical preservation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It does so to push a specific view of the Civil War, the Montgomery, Alabama-based law center says.
Although the SCV is not classified as a hate group by the SPLC, which monitors such organizations across the country, a researcher said the group’s ethos rests on the “Lost Cause” narrative of a glorious South and a racist desire to support the aims of the Confederacy.
“They envision themselves as a not-racist organization, but the underpinnings and the historical context of what they’re arguing for is absolutely a racist project,” Howard Graves, senior research analyst with SPLC, said.
To be listed as a hate group by the SPLC, an organisation must clearly exist to defame or demean an entire group of people based on immutable characteristics, like race, he said. The Sons of Confederate Veterans does not explicitly act along those lines, Graves said.
“They’re trying to valorize different parts of American history, but they don’t necessarily, specifically name marginalized groups as being somehow ‘less than,'” Graves said. “They are a pro-Confederate group that aims to promote a kind of whitewashed history of the Confederacy.”
The group also gone to court before over monuments — and over Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In Memphis, a set of Confederate monuments that had been displayed at a downtown park, then named for Forrest, were sold by the city to a private company through a legal loophole in 2017.
As part of a private agreement, the terms of which are confidential, Memphis Greenspace Inc. gave the SCV the last of the monuments this past December.
The two parties reached the agreement after a series of legal defeats for the SCV culminating in the Tennessee Supreme Court’s October decision not to hear an appeal. The deal could clear the way for the removal of the remains of Forrest and his wife Mary Ann from Health Sciences Park in downtown Memphis, the park that was home to his equestrian statue until Dec. 20, 2017.
Also last year, the University of North Carolina announced that a Confederate statue pulled down by protesters would be returned to the SCV.
The “Silent Sam” statue came down in late 2018 after hundreds of protesters erected massive banners on poles and used diversions to conceal work to yank down the statue with a rope.
The November settlement came after a separate lawsuit from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The university system said the settlement complies with a 2015 North Carolina state law restricting the removal of Confederate monuments.
Natalie Allison contributed. Includes reporting from The Commercial Appeal and the Citizen Times.
Reach reporter Mariah Timms at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.