Park Name Change Lawsuit Ruling Expected Soon 

Generic park names still in place as replacements for controversial ones.

A ruling is expected any day now in a lawsuit that will determine the names of three Memphis parks that were changed a year ago in a controversial move by the Memphis City Council that drew emotional debate, criticism, and a visit by the Ku Klux Klan.

The council approved a resolution in February 2013 to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park, Jefferson Davis Park to Mississippi River Park, and Confederate Park to Memphis Park. 

Some residents and a group called Citizens to Save Our Parks filed a lawsuit in May 2013 to block the new names claiming "it is for the benefit of public interest and welfare that these parks retain their historic and true name." 

Allan Wade, the City Council's attorney, moved immediately to dismiss the suit and has done so in court motions several times over the past year as the legal action has played out. He claims the groups don't have legal standing to trump the council's action. 

click to enlarge A place holder sign at the former Jefferson Davis Park - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • A place holder sign at the former Jefferson Davis Park

"They argue that they have passionate interest in the parks, and they go out there and clean the parks up and that they had all these agreements," Wade said. "But standing is based upon injury. In the absence of a recognizable injury, you don't really have any different standing than anybody else who is interested in a park or street or a building or anything else."

The plaintiffs' attorney, Douglas E. Jones of the Nashville firm Schulman, Leroy, and Jones, has countered those moves by amending their original suit, and added new plaintiffs like the Memphis chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV).

Jones said his clients do have legal standing, according to a recent court motion. The SCV group installed Civil War replica cannons in all three parks at a cost of $75,000. Also, he said the SCV lost about $56,000 in revenue when the national SCV organization removed Memphis from its list of possible locations for its national convention in 2016. 

"Clearly, [the national and local SCV groups] have standing because both have suffered a special injury that was casually connected to the [city's] actions," the motions said. "[The groups] have suffered a distinct and palpable injury because they funded commemorative markers and statues in the parks to preserve history, they suffered a financial loss due to the parks' names being changed, and are actively involved in the upkeep of and maintenance of the parks." 

Wade said he expects the ruling soon because Chancellor Kenny W. Armstrong, the judge presiding over the suit in Shelby County Chancery Court, will take the bench at the Tennessee Court of Appeals on September 1st. The ruling could come "any day now," he said, but couldn't say exactly when because "courts do what they do."

Should the suit be dismissed, the names that remain for the parks will be the purposefully bland, place-holding names the council approved to get ahead of a state law that would have banned the name changes. 

The council assembled and convened a committee of Memphis citizens to come up with new names for the parks. That committee's meetings hummed with racial tension, but the members agreed to change Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Civil War Memorial Park, Confederate Park to Promenade Park, and Jefferson Davis Park to Harbor Park. City Councilmember Bill Boyd oversaw those meetings as the chairman of the council's parks committee.

"I was opposed to [changing the names], and I think we should just leave history as it is and move on," Boyd said this last week.

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