Two weeks after the Memphis City Council voted in favor of removing the monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jefferson Davis and J. Harvey Mathes, statue sympathizers are still frustrated about how everything transpired.
Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesperson Lee Millar spoke with The New Tri-State Defender reporter Montee Lopez on Wednesday, sharing his thoughts on what has happened and how it can be corrected in his eyes. He came ready with a history lesson about Forrest and his impact on Memphis more than 150 years ago.
Montee Lopez: What is your take on what happened Dec. 20, 2017, when Memphis City Council voted to take down the Confederate monuments?
Lee Millar: I think it went against what the city and mayor were saying all along, (that) they would act legally and follow the law. I don’t think they did that. I think they broke the law in doing what they were doing. The fact they went in at night under the cover of darkness kind of substantiates that — that it was not legal what they did.
ML: Why do you say they broke the law?
LM: They sold the park land for $1,000. I’m sure you and your readers would like to buy $2 million worth of park land for $2,000. The state’s got sunshine laws where you’ve got to bid this out. Everybody has to have an opportunity to bid on the land, but that didn’t happen.
ML: So you didn’t know the land was for sale at all?
LM: No! No one knew. That was just an amendment tacked on, not even announced, at the end of the city council meeting.
ML: Had you met with city council members prior to the land being sold?
LM: I had met with them off and on, but not about acquiring the land or them selling the land. No, that was a complete secret from everyone.
ML: Mediation was supposed to happen between Sons of Confederate Veterans and the city. How did that fall through?
LM: The Sons of Confederate Veterans have always been willing to talk, willing to meet. Nobody from City Hall contacted me about mediation. No one from City Hall contacted our SCV attorney. Whoever brought up that thing on mediation has pulled the wool over someone’s eyes, because we were not contacted. Whoever brought that up about meeting is incorrect. That didn’t happen.
ML: Had you met with members of #TakeEmDown901 in any capacity?
LM: No, not at all. They’ve proven just by their actions they’re pretty irresponsible. They’ve never tried to contact me at all.
ML: You say you’re a representative of the Forrest family. What are they saying about the statues being removed?
LM: They’re certainly outraged — the statue is the headstone for the grave. Mr. Forrest and Mrs. Forrest are buried under the statue, and that’s part of the gravesite. If someone tried to take the headstone off your great-grandfather, you’d be upset. It’s protected by cemetery law — another law the city broke.
ML: What legal action do you all plan on taking?
LM: Right now, we’re still investigating, still gathering information.
ML: What have you found out so far?
LM: We’ve gotten the bill of sale, the deed to the land. It’s all sham transactions.
ML: Have you met with anyone from Memphis Greenspace Inc., the people who bought the land?
LM: Yes, I met with Van Turner Jr., the president, once. I’ve called him once; I told him we’re interested in the statues and he has a duty to protect them — particularly the Forrest statue which is a headstone for a gravesite. So because that is a cemetery site, he has a duty to maintain and protect that statue. I told him we are interested in getting them back. After all, we did pay for them.
ML: How much did those statues cost?
LM: The Forrest statue originally cost $42,000 back in 1904 — which is about $1 million today. The Davis statue was a little under $50,000 back in 1964, so it’s close to $600,000 now. The J. Harvey Mathes statue, I’m not sure because I don’t know when it was originally put in — easily $20,000 to $30,000.
ML: Do you know where the statues are now?
LM: No, not exactly. The city’s been trying to keep that quiet. They’re in a city warehouse somewhere.
ML: Do you understand why the statues could be bothersome to some people, especially with a city that has more than 60 percent African-American population?
LM: Oh, yes, I certainly understand, but I think a great deal of that is due to miseducation. When the Forrest statue was put up, 30,000 people attended it, including thousands of black Memphians. Forrest was loved by many Memphians — black and white. After the war, Forrest tried to rebuild the city. He hired blacks to work on the railroads when nobody else would. He was putting people to work. He talked to the federal authorities — he said the freemen have skills, they’re part of our society (and) you need to put them to work (of course they didn’t do it). But yeah, he was well-liked. He saved a black woman from a murderer one night. Everyone was appreciative of that.
ML: What about his history with the Ku Klux Klan? How do you defend that?
LM: No need to defend that. A congressional investigation in 1871 proved Forrest was not even a member of the Klan. He certainly wasn’t the founder. Another man was the first grand wizard so we know Forrest wasn’t the grand wizard, though he had a lot of influence in the South. In 1869, because he was upset at the way the Klan had become violent, he ordered it be disbanded. Because he had such influence, they ceased to exist at that point. Different political things came in — you had a corrupt governor in Tennessee who tripled the taxes on everyone at the time, black and white. Nobody liked him but his henchmen sort of ruled the state. By 1869 he was out of office, so peace, law and order were returned to Tennessee, so Forrest said we don’t need the Klan.
ML: So the original purpose of the Klan was what?
LM: The Klan started as a social club. One of the henchman for the corrupt governor was the sheriff of Pulaski, Tenn., and they needed to get rid of them. He and his henchman were controlling the town with brute force, so they dressed up in curtains and disguises, none of which were white — they were different colors — and ran the sheriff out of town. They restored law and order to Pulaski. The guys in the next town thought it was a great idea and they ran their sheriff out of town doing the same thing. Had nothing to do with black and white, but these guys had been taking land from black farmers and white farmers alike. It spread to fight this corruption in Tennessee. It got bigger and spread throughout the South just to fight martial law.
ML: What do you think General Forrest would think about his statue being moved?
LM: He’d be fighting mad. There’s no reason to tear down history, to move statues. Everyone’s history should be appreciated. You’ve got over 200 years of American history and we should be putting up more statues. You shouldn’t be tearing it down, no matter what it is.
ML: With that being said, were you opposed to it being moved to a place such as a museum?
LM: I rather it have stayed. Forrest was a city councilman for three terms. He tried to rebuild Memphis after the war. Everybody loved him. He was the first white speaker to the Pole-Bearers Association, which was the predecessor to the NAACP. He told them to get jobs, get an education, get out and vote — anything you would tell anyone today. He made a point in that speech to them that we are your friends, we’re your neighbors. If you need anything, come talk to me and I’ll help you. He was a friend to the black man in Memphis. He hired blacks, he had blacks in his calvary, he understood blacks could fight as well as the white guys.
ML: Now, we have to ask — speaking of heritage — you’re aware of the rally that’s supposed to happen at the Tennessee Welcome Center on Riverside Drive Saturday by the group Confederate 901. What are they? Who are they?
LM: They are a group that’s sympathetic to Confederate history and heritage. They’re making their voices heard in disagreement with the city council’s decision. They said it’s supposed to be a peaceful rally — Klans not invited, white supremacists are not invited. Nobody else is invited. These are just people voicing an opinion.
ML: What about those who say the Confederacy lost the war and they should get over it?
LM: They weren’t traitors. They weren’t trying to overthrow the U.S. government. They were trying to leave — like the colonists did with Great Britain. They were just trying to found their own government. Yes the Confederacy lost the war, it happened, but it’s also history. At that time, just about everyone had a connection to the Civil War. If you’re going to get rid of three Confederate statues, people are not going to have any knowledge of where we come from since then — the buildings, the advancement, people growing, the city growing.
ML: Is there any chance for reconciliation to get the statues back to the spots they were in?
LM: Absolutely, because I feel the city was wrong in taking them down. Mayor Strickland said they were going to follow the law and they didn’t.
ML: What do you have to say to the mayor or city council about the statues being brought down and the stance the Sons of Confederate Veterans are taking?
LM: One thing the city has said incorrectly for months — the Forrest statue was not put up as a symbol of white supremacy. That’s idiotic, that’s just an invention. At the end of the 1800s, they were putting up more statues because the veterans were dying out. They wanted to put up these monuments, these memorials to these soldiers most everybody knew — they were friends and relatives. Mayor (Strickland) says that it’s a response to Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws started in 1880 in Indiana. City council says it was a protest against civil rights. (It’s) just a historical monument, it had nothing to do with civil rights. People are getting these misconceptions about why they don’t like these monuments. Then you have people sneaking in the dark of the night and tearing them down. And that’s just wrong. And I would say to the mayor, that’s just wrong. Put up educational markers, enhance the parks, add to our history. Don’t tear it up.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.