City of Memphis Skirts State Law Against Destroying Confederate Statues by Selling City Parks

FILE- In this May 19, 2017, file photo, workers prepare to take down the statue of former Confederate general Robert E. Lee, which stands over 100 feet tall, in Lee Circle in New Orleans. Hanceville Mayor Kenneth Nail wrote to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, asking him and city leaders …
AP/Gerald Herbert

The City of Memphis, Tennessee, found a surprising way to skirt a state law that prevents the destruction of monuments by selling off two city parks to allow private organizations to destroy several Confederate statues, one of which has been standing for over 100 years.

The city council sold the two parks containing a statue to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and another hosting Confederate President Jefferson Davis for only $1,000 each to a local activist group called Memphis Greenspace Inc., according to the New York Post.

The group is a shell group set up by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner for the sole purpose of destroying the statues.

It was a split second move made in only a few hours that took both opponents and many supporters by surprise. Memphis mayor Jim Strickland explained in a statement that the city council had been struggling with ways to destroy the statues for some time but could not find a way clear to do so. Even though the council voted to eliminate the statues two years ago, the vote was meaningless in light of the state’s law against destroying memorials and especially since entreaties to the state of Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the statues were denied.

“The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum,” Strickland said in a statement posted to Facebook.

“The Forrest statue was placed in 1904, as Jim Crow segregation laws were enacted. The Davis statue was placed in 1964, as the Civil Rights Movement changed our country,” he added.

But, when someone suggested that the city sell the parks for a token amount of money far below market value, Strickland saw the ruse as a quick solution. If the city didn’t own the property and the statues were on “private” property, then the owners could do whatever they wanted with the statues. Strickland insists it is all perfectly legal.

“It’s important to remember what I’ve said all along: I was committed to remove the statues in a lawful way,” he insisted in the statement. “From the beginning, we have followed state law — and tonight’s action is no different.”

The quick and unpublicized decision left groups supporting the statues in shock.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, for instance, claimed that Strickland “stabbed you all in the back,” the Washington Post reported.

James G. Patterson, the commander of the Confederate genealogy and history group, slammed the city council for acting in bad faith.

“This has been a well-organized, behind the scenes plan by the city,” he said on Facebook. “They deliberately did this after hours to prevent action on our part. State officials have been contacted and will address this immediately.”

Still, Patterson urged members not to gather in the city for fear that Strickland would sic the police on them. “I would say that the Memphis police will not tolerate any action around these statues,” he said.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston


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