Bust of KKK leader and Confederate general removed from Tennessee Capitol

Natalie Allison
Nashville Tennessean

NASHVILLE — The bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from the Tennessee Capitol Friday, 42 years after the bust of the slave owner was originally installed in the building.

A crew of workers delivered the bust to the Tennessee State Museum, where it will be on display with additional context about Forrest's life. Crews also removed the busts of U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves.

"This is a momentous day in the city of Nashville," said the Rev. Venita Lewis, a longtime activist who was part of a two-month sit-in last summer outside the Capitol.

As Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers stood guard Friday — as they did around the clock during last summer's demonstrations, at times having physical encounters with activists — Lewis and several other protesters struck a much more celebratory tone than this time last year.

While stone specialists worked to load the statues, the protesters alternated between chants about dropping and breaking the busts and singing "We Shall Overcome" and "Three Blind Mice."

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The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust is removed from the State Capitol by workers Friday, July 23, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.  The State Building Commission on Thursday gave approval for the relocation of the Forrest bust to the Tennessee State Museum, a final step in a process that has taken more than a year since Gov. Bill Lee first said it was time for the statue to be moved.

Forrest was a Confederate cavalry general who amassed a fortune before the Civil War as a Memphis slave trader and plantation owner. Later, he was a leader of the Klan as it terrorized Black people, reversing Reconstruction efforts and restoring white power in the South.

The image of Forrest has sparked protests ever since its installation in 1978. Some suggested adding historical context, while others, including Republican Gov. Bill Lee, successfully argued for moving it to the Tennessee State Museum, just north of the Capitol.

Tennessee’s State Building Commission voted 5-2 Thursday to remove the busts, the final hurdle in a months-long process.

State officials compromised last summer on moving Farragut, a Tennessean who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, and Gleaves, a commander in World War I, so as not to only remove the bust of the Confederate general. 

The removal of Forrest follows years of protests and pressure by activists, but is something that became a reality last summer when Lee declared it was time for the bust to be relocated.

The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust is removed from the State Capitol Friday, July 23, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

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Previous attempts to have the Forrest bust removed were unsuccessful, and a key vote in July 2020 by the State Capitol Commission involved Tennessee's three constitutional officers — the comptroller, secretary of state and treasurer — changing their votes from 2017, when they opposed removal.

Other states have also taken steps toward removing Confederate statues from their Capitol buildings in recent years, including Kentucky, which removed a statue of Confederate Jefferson Davis from Frankfort last June.

Last month, the U.S. House passed a bill that would remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol, requiring states to remove and replace any statues honoring members of the Confederacy in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the building. The bill has not yet faced a vote in the Senate.

In Tennessee, the estimated cost of the bust removal is $17,000, according to the Tennessee Department of General Services. It comes from the state museum's budget.

State officials are somewhat unsure how much each of the busts weigh, though Forrest is believed to weigh less than one ton, Farragut is estimated at more than 3,000 pounds and Gleaves' bust is "significantly lighter," said David Roberson, spokesperson for General Services.

The busts will be on display for the public starting Tuesday.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Natalie Allison on Twitter: @natalie_allison.