Confederate statues stand as reminder of the State’s slave history

America Letter: 50 years after Martin Luther King’s death, race relations still perturb US

As the United States prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death next Thursday, the anniversary has prompted much soul-searching about the current state of race relations in the country.

One topic that has been high on the national agenda in recent times is the issue of Confederate statues. The question of whether statues of generals who fought for the pro-slavery southern side in the American Civil War have a place in modern America has long been a contentious topic. But it was last August’s events in Charlottesville that pushed the debate into the international spotlight.

Violence erupted at a march organised by white nationalists to protest at the proposed removal of a statue of civil war general Robert E Lee, and a young woman who joined a counter demonstration was killed. Outrage followed after President Donald Trump appeared to equate the behaviour of torch-wielding demonstrators chanting anti-Semitic phrases with counter-protesters, claiming there was "blame on both sides".

Though the debate about Charlottesville may have retreated from the public sphere, behind the scenes there have been significant developments.


Dozens of cities have removed statues of Confederate figures from public spaces – many under the cover of darkness. Memphis is one such city.

Eight months ago during a trip across the United States, I viewed the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the downtown Health Sciences Park. The statute, depicting Forrest sitting proudly astride his horse, was a monument to the Confederate general who was also a slave-owner and founding member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Curious anomaly

Today, the statue is gone. What remains is a slab-like tomb containing the remains of Forrest and his wife surrounded by railings and traffic cones, the absence of the statue a curious anomaly on the downtown cityscape.

The story of Memphis’s relationship with its Confederate statues (another statue of Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park has also been also removed) captures the tensions and legal complexities that surround the issue.

Though Memphis City Council voted to remove the statues in 2015, the state of Tennessee passed a law effectively prohibiting their removal.

On December 20th last, the council voted to sell the two parks to a specially established non-profit company in order to bypass the state law. Within hours removal trucks had moved in and the statues were taken down. Even those who had been campaigning for the removal were not informed until the last moment, with many racing to the scene to witness the moment.

Both statues are now in storage, but the story is not over. Several groups, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an association of male descendents of Confederate soldiers, are suing the council.

Even those who welcomed the move fear that if the statues are sold privately, they may be erected on private land – a prominent statue of Forrest peers down on the I-65 highway south of Nashville. This week's edition of the local paper, the Memphis Flyer, runs a scathing cover story accusing the city council of closed-door practices.

Even though it supports the removal of the statues, the paper excoriates the council over its handling of the December 20th council meeting, noting that a new rule was introduced to hold the vote, which was not on the public agenda. The manoeuvre “shielded the public from a critical government decision”, the paper said.

White nationalism

Memphis is not the only city facing challenges as it confronts its Civil War legacy. This week a 26-year-old Houston man pleaded guilty to planning to bomb a statue of Dick Dowling in the city. Galway-born Dowling was a Confederate leader during the civil war. Like many Confederate statues, his was erected in the decades after the war, as resistance to racial equality festered in the south and a resurgent white nationalism grew in response to reconstruction.

While his statue still stands in Hermann Park in the city, a street named after him – Dowling Street – was renamed Emancipation Avenue last year.

Tensions over Confederate statues are evident elsewhere. This week two men were jailed by a judge in Virginia for removing the tarpaulin that has covered the Lee and Jefferson statues in Charlottesville, which sparked last year’s protests. The city ordered the statues to be draped in black to honour Heather Heyer, the young woman killed during the Charlottesville rally.

The long-term plan for the statues remains uncertain. Though the local council voted to remove the statues, which were erected in the early 1900s, no final decision on their future has been made.

As America reflects this week on Martin Luther King’s legacy, the controversy over Confederate statues is a reminder of the difficulties that remain in coming to terms with the past – a past that for so long perpetuated an ideology of segregation and racial difference that continues to have repercussions today.