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VOL. 40 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Symbols of long-ago war keep dragging Tennessee down

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More than 150 years ago, we fought our nation’s bloodiest war, a conflagration that claimed 620,000 lives, almost as many as were killed in all other American war efforts combined.

Despite the horror of it all, we just can’t seem to learn a lesson, possibly because of Southern hardheadedness, and a century and a-half later, we seem doomed to an eternal task: pushing Sisyphus’ rock to the top of a hill only to have it chase us back to the bottom.

The South hit rock bottom again in summer 2015 when a young man shown in photos wrapping himself in the Confederate flag gunned down nine people at historically black Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina.

The massacre was so shocking that the state first to secede from the Union in 1861 finally decided it was time to remove a Confederate battle flag from its statehouse grounds.

In Tennessee, however, we’re still fiddling around with removal of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statue from a Memphis park, the name of Forrest Hall from MTSU’s ROTC building and his bust from the state Capitol.

Likewise, the Mississippi Legislature refused to let 12 bills related to the state’s Confederate-based flag make it to the House or Senate floor for debate, according to Grenada, Mississippi attorney Carlos Moore.

And to add insult to injury, in the midst of Black History Month, Gov. Phil Bryant, declared April as Confederate History Month.

An enraged Moore took action, filing a lawsuit against Bryant challenging the constitutionality of the Mississippi flag, mainly on the grounds it denies him and other African Americans a “right to equal dignity,” which he contends was guaranteed to all Americans by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Obergefell v. Hodges case legalizing same-sex marriage.

As the case awaits a judge’s ruling on whether it has legal merit to move forward in federal court in Mississippi, Moore is touring Tennessee to build support for Democrats, stopping in Murfreesboro recently, with visits planned for Jackson, Clarksville and this Thursday in Memphis at the Royal Studios of Grammy Award-winning producer “Boo” Mitchell.

“I call it the Confederate State Flag of Mississippi, because it’s the only state flag in our 50 United States that has the battle flag of the Confederacy embedded. They did it in 1894, and it’s flown since, and it’s time for it to come down,” says Moore, a veteran of legal fights over issues such as police brutality.

“After I realized that symbol of hate could lead somebody to kill in cold blood, I knew it was time to act. I have a 5-year-old daughter, and when you put my child’s safety in jeopardy, it’s time to act.”

While Gov. Bryant dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous, Moore says, he points out he argued the case in front of a federal judge for three and a-half hours. He says he received three death threats within two days of filing the lawsuit and was forced to hire fulltime security for his family and law office.

Moore says Mississippi’s flag is unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and allowing elimination of the vestiges of that institution, as well as the 14th Amendment, which the high court ruling guarantees people “equal dignity” under the law.

“History is history, but a flag should represent all the people of that state. And the current flag we have stands for white supremacy, and you’ve got 38 percent of the state African American, not to mention the Latinos or whatever other racial and ethnic minorities reside in the state,” Moore adds.

Moore states quite plainly slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, Mississippi’s secession and the reason the Confederate battle flag keeps hanging around, an offense to him and other people who continue to be treated as “second-class citizens” as a result.

If there’s any doubt about the war’s focal point, consider the words of Mississippi’s declaration of causes for secession:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Apparently, Mississippi’s slave masters and politicians never considered putting on a long-sleeve shirt, long pants and hat so they could pick cotton alongside the more swarthy folks of that land. Or, maybe their hands were too delicate and too busy counting money for such demeaning work.

Whatever the case, they clearly justified the institution of slavery for dark-skinned people because they could handle the heat. Never mind the fact they treated slaves like animals, buying and selling them at market based on their size, strength and ability to work.

Supporters of holding on to Confederate images never use that long-forgotten argument or the one in which the state of Georgia whines paragraph after paragraph over the wrongs done to the Southern slave-holding states by the Republican Party in an effort to abolish the institution that propped up their economy, giving runaway slaves safe haven and on and on ad nauseam.

Tennessee Gov. Isham G. Harris in January 1861 said these words in calling for a referendum on a Tennessee secession convention before it left the Union:

“The systematic, wanton, and long continued agitation of the slavery question, with the actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern State and a portion of their people, upon the well-defined constitutional rights of the Southern citizen; the rapid growth and increase, in all the elements of power, of a purely sectional party, whose bond of union is uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern States, have produced a crisis in the affairs of the country, unparalleled in the history of the past, resulting already in the withdrawal from the Confederacy of one of the sovereignties which composed it, while others are rapidly preparing to move in the same direction.”

He also notes, “The Constitution distinctly recognizes property in slaves – makes it the duty of the States to deliver the fugitive to his owner, but contains no grant of power to the Federal Government to interfere with this species of property, except ‘the power coupled with the duty,’ common to all civil Governments, to protect the rights of property, as well as those of life and liberty, of the citizen, which clearly appears” from the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling.

If the high court said slavery was OK, then it had to be OK for states to do and property owners to do whatever the hell they wanted, even if the “species” was a person. Right?

Consequently, in our retro-states’ rights atmosphere, when we listen to debates over removal of the Confederate flag and tributes to the beloved Forrest, we consistently hear such treachery would lead to the cleansing of history and the death of Southern heritage.

Slogans such as “Heritage not hate” might not be so popular, though, if people would read those Southern state declarations. After all, nobody is wiping them from the history books.

Changing the rules

When state Sen. Bill Ketron sponsored the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act during the 2016 session, he had been appointed already to the MTSU’s Forrest Hall Task Force to determine whether the building’s name should be changed, left alone or given some historical context.

But while setting up what he calls a “transparent” process for changing history-related statues, monuments, busts, flags, etc., the law also requires a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission.

“This bill reaches a level of seriousness and requires a thorough deliberation of any request. Any time that there is a request to sterilize or even change history, I think that a two-thirds vote is required rather than a simple majority vote. If we ever forget where we come from and forget our past, we are doomed to repeat ourselves. This is how we learn for the future,” Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said in the midst of the debate with MTSU students who rallied to bring down the Forrest name.

The Tennessee Board of Regents recently approved a request by MTSU President Sidney McPhee to drop Forrest’s name and call it “MTSU ROTC Building.”

McPhee argued Forrest has no connection to the university and would not qualify under MTSU’s current guidelines to have his name placed on a building. The president also pointed out to the board that MTSU, in the 21st century, would not name a building for Forrest, as was done in 1959 when the university was a small, regional college.

Of course, the most difficult hurdle will be the Historical Commission, since such groups tend to be averse to change. So McPhee must make his argument again before a group likely to be much more conservative than the Board of Regents, which voted unanimously for dropping Forrest.

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican, called the South Carolina church slaughter a “horrific action” last summer shortly after it happened. “But there seems to be a wildfire burning across the country. And if we’re not careful it’ll consume history,” said McDaniel, deputy House speaker, a Civil War battlefield preservationist and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Immediately after the South Carolina massacre, Gov. Bill Haslam and several other Tennessee leaders advocated removal of Forrest’s bust from the state Capitol.

Too often, people don’t understand history and judge figures such as Forrest against today’s standards, McDaniel said, pointing out, “Today no one would condone slavery.”

Forrest, a lieutenant general of Southern cavalry known for backwoods smarts and fierce fighting (he reportedly killed 30 men and had 29 horses shot out from under him), may have gained as much notoriety after the war as he did during it.

He was a slave trader before the war and is believed to be largely responsible for the massacre of white and black troops at Fort Pillow near Memphis, though it is unclear whether he ordered the killing of surrendering U.S. soldiers or stopped it.

Likewise, he was named the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, according to most historical reports, but later supposedly repudiated the group and its efforts to keep black citizens from voting, in addition to making a conciliatory speech at a Memphis event.

The State Capitol Committee lollygagged in 2015 on the Forrest bust matter, and it continues to be displayed proudly.

Long-term implications

Moore says he believes in First Amendment freedoms for people to put up Confederate symbols on private property. But, he adds, they should come down on public property because he doesn’t want his tax dollars “comingled” with other’s tax money to maintain something as “offensive” as the Confederacy, which he says stood for slavery, lynching, murder, rape, forced labor and servitude and subjugation.

Numerous Mississippi towns feature monuments to the Confederate States of America, as do many in Tennessee, including Murfreesboro, which has a monument to slain Confederate soldiers on the corner of the Public Square, as well as a plaque honoring Forrest by Daughters of the Confederacy on the County Courthouse wall.

If his lawsuit reaches the U.S. Supreme Court and it rules in his favor, Moore says such Confederate monuments and relics could come down, including references to Forrest. Even the names of Southern cities and counties could be changed if it can be proven they deny residents “equal dignity,” he contends.

State Sen. Lee Harris, who is traveling the state with Moore, agrees. The Memphis Democrat sponsored the resolution to remove Forrest’s statue from the Memphis city park. A challenge by Sons of Confederate Veterans is in the state appeals court, and Memphis recently pulled its removal request from Tennessee Historical Commission agenda.

“I think we should be in the business of tolerance, I think we should be in the business of promoting diversity. I think those kinds of symbols are divisive in many communities, so I think (Moore’s) right. I think we should try to avoid divisive symbols, and I think the Confederate flag, the Confederate emblem, has become a divisive symbol,” Harris says.

The South Carolina shooter caressed the Confederate flag and neo-Nazis embrace it, so even though it might have some “historical context,” Harris says, it’s been corrupted by mass murderers and racist organizations and should not be used in public spaces not designed for celebrating history but as places where all people should feel welcome.

People (such as myself) who have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and could qualify for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans might have a hard time coming to grips with removing every Confederate monument from public grounds.

After all, very few of the men who fought and died while wearing gray uniforms owned slaves. Most were poor kids who were trying to stay alive. They thought their state and their home was being invaded, and they wanted to protect it.

Powers out of their control put them in the predicament of running straight into the face of a cannon.

A century and a half later, our people must recognize the folly of the Confederacy and its failure to recognize the basis for its economy was one of the greatest evils ever conceived. Its shadow has hung over our land long enough to realize we need to quit pushing that rock up the hill.

It’s time to understand that “all men are created equal” and let it go at that.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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