Governor Bill Lee Addresses the Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust
*Remarks as prepared for delivery 7/8/20
"The State Capitol Commission will meet tomorrow to take up the issue of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust and its future in our statehouse. Tomorrow’s commission meeting has been more than a year in the making as appointments have been made to the Capitol Commission and options for the bust have been evaluated with respect to those who want to see it remain in the statehouse and those who want to see it moved to an alternate location.
The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust has spurred a heated debate that began long before all the national ruckus on monuments that we are seeing play out today. Since taking office in 2019, thousands of Tennesseans have reached out to me to express passionate views and I know many reached out to governors before me.
This issue of the Forrest bust that’s been going on for the last 40 years is very different from the destructive tide that has swept the nation in recent weeks that has been about defacing property and denying history. It’s mob rule that’s been confused for activism, yet it represents the worst possible way to address questions of history, symbolism and context.
The State Capitol Commission process is the opposite of what we are seeing play out nationally. It’s a process designed by the Tennessee General Assembly with representative citizen appointees who use a framework to determine the historical figures whom we revere in the halls of our statehouse. I have great respect for this process and the task the members face on the complex question of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A Confederate General from Memphis, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a renowned military tactician and the bust sits opposite a fellow Tennessean, Union Admiral, and esteemed military leader, David Glasgow Farragut. In tandem, these two men represent the push and pull of our state’s history and the conflict that forged so much of our identity and our role in striving for a “more perfect Union”.
Nathan Bedford Forrest is as much a part of our past as David Farragut, the first leader of the United States Navy.
However, Forrest represents pain, suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans and that pain is very real for many of our fellow Tennesseans as they walk the halls of our statehouse and evaluate how he could be one of the just 9 busts elevated to a place of honor and reverence.
Symbols matter - proclamations and statues are not just snapshots of our history, they are a window into what we value. While the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust creates a clear tension between heritage and symbolism, we would be wise to not make this a referendum on his place in history.
The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust is not just another confederate symbol. There is a reason that this particular bust has, for 40 years, stood above others as controversial. It is because this individual, during a season of his life, significantly contributed to one of the most regretful and painful chapters in our nation’s history.
I am asking the Capitol Commission to consider whether the current placement of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust allows for his full story to be told and his contribution to our history to be understood. As guardians of history, we can’t underestimate that history without understanding is quickly forgotten.
Many have argued that despite Nathan Bedford Forrest’s disturbing track record, he died a reconciled man who recognized the evil he had perpetrated and turned from his ways.
At a minimum, there should be context around Forrest to acknowledge the complexity of his legacy in Tennessee. I believe his contribution to what life in the 19th century looked like in Tennessee is important and it deserves to be displayed, written about and discussed in the most appropriate location which is the Tennessee State Museum.
While the Capitol Commission’s vote acknowledges the vast public interest in the Forrest bust, what I am proposing simply determines the location for the bust: whether it is to remain in the Capitol or be moved to the state museum for display.
I’ve continuously said that we should learn from our history, rather than whitewash it. More recently, I’ve said that the most appropriate resolution for the Forrest bust is to put it in the appropriate context. I am as committed to those beliefs today as I have ever been.
What I would add now is that the most appropriate way to give full context to this complicated life is to put the bust in the state museum where the very purpose is to see and understand our history in full.
And these are my thoughts on what the Capitol Commission should do: that we put the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee State Museum where it can be part of an exhibit that can be studied, learned from, and seen in full context."