Activists Appeal To White Tennesseans In Their Latest Calls To Remove A Confederate Monument

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 9:10 pm

Gov. Bill Haslam suggested Monday that he would be willing to back a renewed effort to remove a controversial bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, after dozens of protesters gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol Monday to demand it be taken down immediately.

The rally, one of many such events held around the South in the wake of last weekend's white-supremacist violence in Virginia, appeared to signal a renewed push to remove Confederate symbols from their prominent locations in the Capitol and elsewhere.

One of the protesters who turned out was Elizabeth TeSelle. She is white and lives in Maury County. She says she was appalled by the footage of white men and women marching and brawling in the streets of Charlottesville. But TeSelle believes those white supremacists have more support than some might think.

"This is not a fringe group," she says. "These people are my neighbors. They're friendly to me, they're nice to me and they give me dirty looks at my car because I've got bumper stickers on my car.

"I know what they're really thinking."

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader, a feared cavalryman and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Many hold him responsible for the massacre of 300 African-American troops at a Union fort in 1864.

Justin Jones, a senior at Fisk University and prominent Nashville activist, has tried for years to get Forrest's likeness removed from the state capitol. He says that it's an insult to people of color who pass through the state Capitol.

"That symbol serves as a daily reminder that they're not welcome here in the people's house," he says.

But there have been many calls to remove the bust since it went up in the 1970s. The most recent came after the Charleston church shooting two years ago. That campaign triggered a law that actually makes it harder to remove Confederate monuments across the state.

The problem, says Jones, is white Tennesseans — even those who oppose Confederate monuments — haven't been involved enough.

"What we need our white brothers and sisters to do is to put their bodies on the line," he says.

In the nearly two-hour protest, whites were at the forefront, kneeling in protest outside Governor Haslam's office.

But the message — that whites, specifically, are responsible for racism — seemed to make Ronnie Clardy of Nashville uncomfortable.

"It's beautiful to see people come together, but people get so ruffled in their feelings about things that don't even matter," he says. "It's a statue inside a building."

Clardy says he'd like to see the statue come down, too, but believes opponents of racism should focus on building unity.

Governor Haslam wasn't in the Capitol during the protest, and he lacks the authority to take the statue down on his own. But in a statement, he promised to push the state commissions and lawmakers who control the Capitol complex to act.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, was one of four lawmakers who attended the protest and met with an aide to Governor Haslam. He says Tennessee needs to come to grips with its involvement in slavery, including the fact that people were bought and sold in Nashville.

"We got to take that seriously, because what I think we saw this weekend is that, when you fail to deal with your history, when you suppress that, we’re letting these things come out, letting violence out," he says. "We have to be better than that."

Joy Bronson helped lead the rally. She is African-American and a divinity student at Vanderbilt University. She says she's frustrated, after years of telling white associates her experiences with racism, that many still express shock over the violence in Charlottesville.

"My question is: And so now, what are you going to do?" she says. "Because this will keep happening — it's continued to happen — until we choose to be different and we choose to live differently and have different lives and are different about the ways that we see each other."

Bronson says Charlottesville has the potential to trigger political change — if it forces whites to do more to combat racism.

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