MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A debate over Confederate symbolism has been rekindled by a suggestion to remove a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest — rebel general, slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan member— from a park in the majority black city of Memphis.
The bronze statue of Forrest on horseback sits above his grave and that of his wife at a shady, roadside park nestled in Memphis' medical district. The spot used to be called Forrest Park, but a racially-mixed City Council two years ago abruptly renamed it Health Sciences Park, a move that sparked a protest by a Ku Klux Klan faction in downtown Memphis.
On Wednesday, Mayor A C Wharton said he personally thinks the statue should be removed from the park and "returned to Forrest Monument Association that had it placed there." Wharton said the graves should be relocated to Elmwood Cemetery.
Wharton, who faces a re-election challenge in October, appears to be making another move to distance the city from the legacy of Forrest, who once served as a Memphis councilman.
"Memphis City Council has the authority to remove the statue from the park. I look forward to working with them to implement whatever change the Council approves," said Wharton, who is black.
Lee Millar, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Memphis, says the group opposes the statue's removal.
"It's too bad that Mayor Wharton wants to get involved in anti-Southern criticism," Millar said Thursday. "There is already enough in Memphis to keep the lawmakers busy."
The Associated Press asked council member Kemp Conrad if the council plans to consider moving the statue. In response, he emailed an April 29, 2013, opinion by city attorney Allan Wade saying the council has authority to relocate the statue but any attempt to reinter Forrest and his wife would require a lawsuit.
Questions remain about moving the statue in light of a state law barring removal of war-related monuments.
Discussion of the Forrest statue has been renewed amid calls throughout the South to do away with Confederate symbols after the massacre of nine people at a black church in South Carolina last week. The white suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, posed in photos displaying Confederate flags.
In Nashville, efforts to remove a bust of Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol gained momentum Wednesday when state's two Republican speakers asked the State Capitol Commission to evaluate what should qualify someone to be honored in the Capitol complex.
Forrest, a cotton farmer and slave trader, lived in Memphis before the Civil War. Though lacking traditional military training, he rose to lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and became legendary for fast horseback raids that disrupted the enemy's supply lines and communications.
Forrest also led the siege against Union-held Fort Pillow, north of Memphis, in 1864. With the clear advantage, Forrest ordered Union Maj. William Bradford and his troops to surrender. Forrest's men then stormed the fort and killed about 300 soldiers, half of them black. They also took black and white prisoners.
Northern newspapers called it a massacre — and questions linger whether the Union soldiers there were slaughtered as they tried to surrender. But some historians say the deaths were a consequence of battle.
Forrest was an early leader of the Klan, which intimidated and threatened Southern blacks. He is also believed to have helped disband the first incarnation of the Klan in 1869.
Forrest died in 1877 and his body was moved to Forrest Park from Elmwood Cemetery in the early 1900s. The park is less than two miles from the old Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
This is not the first time Forrest Park has sparked debate. Memphis officials, led by the city's black mayor, rejected an effort to rename it in 2005.
In 2013, council ordered a marker removed that officials said was placed without city permission at Forrest Park by Forrest supporters, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The City Council then voted to change the names of Forrest Park, Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, ahead of the passage of a state law barring the removal of any monument or memorial dedicated in honor of the Civil War and other conflicts.
The name changes led to a protest by a Klan faction. A lawsuit challenging the name change failed in Chancery Court. A state appeals court is considering the case.