I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. When I returned home for my brother’s memorial service, the city looked different.
The Memphis State University of my youth is now the University of Memphis. The mayor no longer owns a barbecue chain. The city, bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, still spreads out to the east, but what used to be the beginning of farms and wooded areas is now part of a developed extension of city and county. A park that used to be called Nathan Bedford Forrest Park is now called Health Sciences Park.
But Memphis is still Memphis.
The economic and social divide of today looks like that of my childhood. The city’s history of racial division goes back to at least 1819, when the city was founded. Memphis was a hub for slave trading before the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated here. My niece has white high school friends who refer to the city as “Memphrica” — an allusion to Africa that reflects the fact the Memphis is 64 percent black.
So I was surprised when I heard about Confederate statues in Memphis coming down. I thought back to when I was 5 years old and first asked my parents about them.
My parents, my older brother, and I were driving downtown. We had gotten barbecue and chitlins (“chitterlings” – if you don’t know, don’t ask) at a place by the river and were heading home. We passed what I now know was Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. I saw a statute of a man riding the biggest horse I had ever seen. I asked, “Who is that on that big horse?”
My young parents, then in their 30s, got quiet. Something was wrong.
I now realize they probably had no idea what to say. How could they explain America’s legacy of slavery, racial hatred, and oppression to a 5-year-old boy? How much detail was enough for a young child? What facts could explain honoring the man on the horse if he sold people as property and killed American soldiers to keep doing it?
The horse and the man were still there when I arrived in Memphis, but just days after I left monuments to Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest were removed from places of honor in the city. I had new questions about the man and horse. How did the removal happen? And what does it mean?
The City Council, which is made up of seven black and six white members, voted unanimously to sell the parks where the monuments stood to a nonprofit entity that quickly removed them. The Chamber of Commerce supported the removal. The New York Times quoted Mayor Jim Strickland, the city’s first white mayor in nearly a quarter-century, crediting a “unified effort” that “stands in stark contrast to what happened in 1968,” when Dr. King was fatally shot.
It is not that simple. Memphis politicians seem uncomfortable admitting the critical role played by Tami Sawyer, a black woman who is a director of Teach for America. Sawyer lead a movement that empowered community voices to tell city government that it was time for the monuments to go. The New York Times described Sawyer’s advocacy as “persistent and sometimes disruptive.”
Well, it takes persistence to disrupt a false racial narrative that has for decades blocked “unified efforts” for racial justice.
“I think there’s a lot of people that are trying in Memphis to bridge this racial divide,” Sawyer said. “But I think that we have to have honest conversations about why that divide exists. Too often people want to say, ‘Let’s get to the healing,’ but not call out the years of systemic oppression that continue to exist.”
America clings to a false narrative about slavery — that it wasn’t that bad or that extensive, that it ended conclusively more than a century ago, that the Civil War was about states’ rights or something else — because we are desperate to avoid confronting the truth about our history.
As a criminal defense lawyer, I learned people are rarely just one thing. They can be wonderful in one way, contemptible in another. A historical marker at the site of Forrest’s home in Memphis notes, “Following marriage in 1845 he came to Memphis, where his business enterprises made him wealthy.”
“Business enterprises.” Forrest was a slave trader. He peddled human flesh for a price and he got filthy rich from it. His home in Memphis was right across the street from his slave market, so he could sell human beings into bondage and then stroll home to be a Southern gentleman. Any wonderful personal qualities were greatly outweighed by his defense of and contribution to white supremacy.
Slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Secession statements from Confederate states make that clear. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said, “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Forrest is quoted in a foreword to his own biography as saying, “If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin’ for?”
Some say Forrest changed his views at the end of his life, but it really doesn’t matter. There was no engraving on the foundation of his monument saying “he was a white supremacist who changed his views and tried to do penance for his sins against humanity.” The monuments to Forrest and Davis honored them simply as warriors for the Confederacy.
The truth is that removal of these monuments will not educate, feed, or free from prison even one person of color. But the admission of the true nature of our racialized past is a necessary part of real structural change leading to racial justice.
They owe penance for their sins, but all that’s left of them are statues. The legacy of the sins remains, so it is just that the statues come down.
Jeffery Robinson is ACLU deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality.