The Tennessee House has passed a bill that would make it more difficult to remove statues or rename streets dedicated to historical figures, including a state Capitol bust of a prominent Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader.
The chamber voted 71-23 on Thursday to approve the measure, titled the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.”
Calls to remove Confederate imagery from public places multiplied rapidly across the South after the slaying of nine black churchgoers last June in Charleston, South Carolina. A white man espousing racist views and who posed in a photo with a Confederate flag has been charged with murder in the killings.
The Tennessee bill would require a vote of two-thirds of the 29-member Tennessee Historical Commission to gain a waiver from a statewide ban on changing or removing historical markers. That’s an increase from the current law that requires only a majority vote. It would also prevent any changes for at least six months from the date of the petition.
Republican state Rep. Steve McDaniel of Parkers Crossroads said his bill is aimed at avoiding “kneejerk reactions when certain events happen across this country.”
Following the Charleston church shooting, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said he supported removing the Capitol bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is famous for his exploits as a Confederate cavalry general who had amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War.
Forrest was accused of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee’s Fort Pillow in 1864, though the extent of his responsibility is disputed. And following the war, the newly formed Ku Klux Klan elected Forrest its honorary grand wizard, though he publicly denied being involved. Two years later, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members’ increasing violence.
The city of Memphis voted in August to remove an equestrian statue of Forrest, and has taken steps to remove the graves of Forrest and his wife, who are buried under the statue. But the city has not yet petitioned the state historical commission’s approval, and a legal challenge has been filed against a decision to rename the park.
Tempers flared during the debate over the bill Thursday, when two Memphis-area lawmakers, one black and one white, had to separated amid a heated argument about the white lawmaker’s effort to cut off the debate.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville criticized the bill because it would allow just 10 out of the 29 members of the historical panel to block any changes.
“The whole point of the bill is to gum up the works to make it virtually certain that a small minority of people can make it impossible to address whether we should have a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in our state Capitol,” he said.
The Senate would have to approve the bill before it could head for the governor’s consideration.