Inevitably, the shockwaves from Charleston, S.C., have found their way into the Memphis election season.
In truth, several different kinds of things got said and done by candidates in 2015 city races this week, and these will be dealt with soon enough (in the case of this blog, within the next post or two).
Right now, the one thing that stands out was a statement made by Mayor A C Wharton that got widely noticed on Thursday but actually got said sometime late Wednesday — in an email to the Associated Press, no less.
That a statement with such potentially profound consequences got distributed that way surely belongs in the next thoughtful thumb-sucking piece about how social media have impacted our election process.
What the Mayor recommended was the immediate removal of a statue of the late Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, atop his charger, from a park that was once named for the general, a renowned calvary leader during the Civil War, but became Health Sciences Park in 2013 as part of a general re-evaluation of the city’s attitude toward its own history.
That statue, said Wharton, should be remanded to the custody of the Forrest Monument Association, the memorial society that placed it there a century ago and, to judge by what the Mayor said, must still exist.
Wharton went further: The remains of Forrest and his wife should be disinterred and taken for re-burial in Elmwood Cemetery, the vintage resting place of many distinguished Memphians and the original place of interment for the Forrests before they were re-buried beneath the general’s statue.
This unprecedented demotion of a Memphis icon is more than just another reaction to the horrors of Charleston like the sentiment almost everywhere, South as well as North, for the eradication of Confederate symbolism of the sort that clearly motivated Dylann Storm Roof.
Forrest has long been controversial in his own right for three matters attached to his reputation — his history as a slave trader before the Civil War, his alleged massacre of black Union soldiers at the battle of Fort Pillow during the war (Forrest’s defenders hotly dispute his responsibility for the verified non-combat deaths that occurred there), and his founding of the Ku Klux Klan after the war (something that the self-same defenders insist didn’t really happen, or didn’t happen in exactly the way that people imagine).
These are the issues, presumably, that Wharton had in mind when he said that it was inappropriate for people to be picnicking in the shadow of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
And it isn’t just the Mayor. One of his prime opponents in the current Mayor’s race is Councilman Jim Strickland, who was at Overton Square’s Zebra Lounge on Thursday night as the honoree of a meet ‘n greet affair that targeted African-American voters.
Asked about Wharton’s proposal before he spoke to the crowd, Strickland answered without hesitation: “I’m for it."
An hour later, at the close of an East Memphis fundraiser in the offices of the Farris and Bobango law firm, Councilman Ed Ford was asked his attitude toward the idea and said that, while he’d rather focus on amending the larger conditions of potential racial discord in the city, he wouldn’t oppose the act of removal proposed by Wharton.
Others running for Mayor or for Council have not had a chance to weigh in yet, but one gets the sense that Wharton’s proposal, while it may be at least partly inspired by the politics of the moment, is transcendent of it as well, and is unlikely to incur much disagreement among other mainstream candidates.
The idea of removing all traces of the General and of what he is now thought to represent from a place of honor and prominence in Memphis is not new. It has been proposed at intervals for the last decade or so. It may in fact be that proverbial idea whose time has come.