January 31, 2018; Memphis Daily News
State court chancery judge Ellen Hobbes Lyle ruled this week that Memphis Greenspace, which worked with the City of Memphis to legally remove two Confederate statues from a city park last month, must enter into mediation with the city and the Sons of Confederate Veterans to decide the statues’ fate.
In December, as NPQ reported, the city circumvented state law stating that “No statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, or plaque which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of a military conflict that is identified in a list of conflicts in which the U.S. has participated and is located on public property, may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed” without a special waiver. The city sold Health Sciences Park and Memphis park, which contained statues of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis; Confederate general, slave trader, and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest; and a bust of Confederate Capt. Harvey Mathes, to Memphis Greenspace, a new nonprofit, for $1,000 each, making the parks private property. The statues were removed immediately and stored.
NPQ reported that, “Memphis Greenspace, which bought the parks and appears to exist only for the purpose of owning and caring for them, is led by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner and only filed for incorporation in October. A popular local cause, the specialized entity has raised $250,000 from the public.”
The removal of the statues was cheered by activists and many in the city’s community, but it was challenged by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who had previously refused to mediate with the city while the parks were still publicly owned.
According to the Memphis Daily News, “City chief legal officer Bruce McMullen said the new court order is about ‘an appropriate home’ for the statues.” Lyle said the group cannot sell or transfer the statues pending a hearing before the Tennessee Historical Commission by March, though several future owners have been proposed, including museums and a white nationalist group in Biloxi that expressed interest in the statues.
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In the days after the August events in Charlottesville, we saw an avalanche of support come together behind our efforts. So, it’s important that we not forget the sea change that made today a reality: Republicans and Democrats, a unanimous city and county government, Gov. Haslam, scores of diverse members of the clergy, prominent members of the business community, and citizen demonstrators came together to support the same cause.
Ideally, this could be an opportunity for the opposing sides to come together and discuss how to confront the city’s racially segregated past and move into a more united, more communicative future. Unfortunately, no groups have expressed enthusiasm about it so far. McMullen said, “It should be noted that the city no longer owns these statues. They are the property of Memphis Greenspace.”
As for SCV, a Facebook post from the Memphis Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans reads,
Where in the world do these people come up with this “mediate” bull hockey?
When they decide to break the law in the middle of the night and destroy a grave marker and historical artwork and sell millions worth of public property below market value to a buddy on the county commission, “mediation” is no option.
Nevertheless, mediation is the path prescribed.
Fortunately, as noted above, several good options for the statues’ eventual home do exist. Memphis Greenspace president Van Turner said the statues are undamaged and will remain that way. (McMullen told the group during the removal, “There will be a war if you drop one.”) Despite widespread ambivalence, it seems the groups have no choice but to come to the table and decide the fate of the statues together.—Erin Rubin