Two more Confederate statues came down the night of December 20 in Memphis, Tennessee. The city’s mayor and council, which had been trying to get rid of the monuments for years, had to contend with Tennessee’s draconian Heritage Protection Act of 2013, passed in direct response to the city’s initial move to rename the park that honored Nathan Bedford Forest. The new state law instituted a blanket prohibition on the “the removal, relocation, or renaming of a memorial that is, or is located on, public property.” But the city found a creative workaround, selling the two parks that housed the statues of Forrest and Jefferson Davis to a local nonprofit created for the express purpose of evading state control of local monuments.
Predictably, opponents of the move decried the “erasure” of history. This is only one of many red herrings in the Memphis story.
How did a statue of Jefferson Davis — slaveholder and Senator from Mississippi, leader of the Confederate government when it presided in Montgomery and Richmond — end up in a town in Tennessee? Davis led a peripatetic life after the Civil War, staying for a few years in Memphis and dabbling briefly there in the life insurance business. But you won’t find this interesting historical tidbit on the Memphis monument’s pedestal, still in place even though the statue is not. Instead it proclaims Davis “a true American patriot” — this man who led a breakaway nation that labeled the US its enemy and killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers.
Sponsored by Memphis’s white elite, self-proclaimed “patriotic citizens,” Davis’s statue went up not in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1889, not even in the early 20th century, but in the thick of the civil rights movement: 1964. That is not a typo. Barely three years after the bronze Davis appeared in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the city to lend his support to the strike of local sanitation workers locked in an epic battle with the white-dominated local government and police. It was during this action that he was assassinated, after urging the black community to stick with the strikers and “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
The strange proximity of these two events in Memphis — the erection of the Davis monument and the assassination of Dr. King — is the illness of the United States in a nutshell.
Until last week, the history told by Memphis’s memorial landscape was not just one-sided, it was delusional. Davis went to his grave arguing in print that “African servitude” in the US was a mild and humane institution and that the Supreme Court had been right to declare that “persons of the African race” couldn’t be part of the American people. That was his patriotism. King went to his grave arguing that “America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.”
There are no public monuments in Memphis — outside the National Civil Rights Museum — that take up King’s challenge to free America from its delusion of white supremacy. There are no monuments to the Union cause, even though Memphis was a hotbed of Unionism and its free black population swelled to nearly half the city’s total in 1865; no monuments to the black victims of a white massacre in 1866, one of the most brutal racial attacks in this nation’s history; no monuments to the strikers King came to support a century later. Instead, the city built monuments to Confederates and to people like Edward Hull Crump, a segregationist who lent his support to the Davis monument. The history told by Memphis’s monuments has been truthful in only one respect: it records the white elite’s own self-deception and denial.
The controversy over Klansman Nathan Bedford Forrest follows a similar pattern, stuck on whether he reformed his racist views at the end of his life. The issue is yet another red herring, since the monument itself could care less. The statue represented him in full Confederate regalia, with a wild inscription telling us that “he fought like a Titan and struck like a God, and his dust is our ashes of Glory.” That titanic history, as most everyone knew, included the massacre Forrest oversaw at Fort Pillow in 1864, where some three hundred Union prisoners, mostly black, were summarily killed.
In a weird case of just deserts, the “patriotic citizens” of Memphis broke the express wishes of Forrest’s own last will and testament, disinterred his and his wife’s remains from their family plot in a local cemetery, and reburied them underneath the monument, where they remain today. The same people complaining of erasing history are now, inexplicably, calling the monument’s removal “grave desecration.”
The memorial landscape of Memphis, like that of most places in the US, needs a major makeover. The city’s legal creativity has been a good start, but artistic creativity is necessary too. Reckoning with the past in a real way requires us to imagine new futures. What would a “dangerously unselfish” monument look like? And could we install it among the old Confederate ghosts, perhaps even above the graves of Forrest and his wife?
Kirk Savage is a professor of art and architecture history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America.