The Nathan Bedford Forrest statue is gone from Health Sciences Park, with the base remaining. (Photo: Johnathan Martin)

The city of Memphis had not asked for and did not expect to get any state funding to help finance the bicentennial celebration next year, according to a spokesperson for the city.

The Republican-dominated House voted Tuesday to punish Memphis for removing Confederate monuments from its parks by taking $250,000 away from the city that would have been used to help pay for a bicentennial celebration in 2019.

“We didn’t know the state planned to give us any state money for the bicentennial,” said chief communications officer Ursula Madden on Wednesday. “It would have been nice to have had that additional money but we’re not going to miss it because we were never counting on it.”

Mayor Jim Strickland added that he was very proud of legislators from Memphis who stood up for the city in what turned out to be a contentious debate before the final vote on the measure.

“And the community of Memphis really in the last 12 hours let their voices be heard that they disagree with this,” Strickland said. “The state wrote the law. We abided by the law to the letter. The statues were removed completely, 100 percent legally and we think it was the right thing to do.”

The retaliation came in the form of passage of a last-minute amendment attached to the House appropriations bill that triggered heated debate on the House floor and stinging rebukes from lawmakers from Memphis.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson called the amendment vile and racist before being cut off by boos from fellow lawmakers.

“You can boo all you want but let’s call it for what it is,” the Memphis representative said.

Last year the city of Memphis, which is majority black, was able to find a loophole to get rid of two Confederate statues and a bust by selling city parks to a nonprofit, which swiftly removed the monuments.

Taken away under cover of darkness were statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a general in the confederacy, a slave owner and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. A bust of a Confederate soldier was also removed.

Parkinson, who is black, said he was sick of how fellow lawmakers revered Forrest “as if he was God, as if he was an idol.”

“You remove money from a city because we removed your God from our grounds,” Parkinson said.

A Republican lawmaker from Chattanooga who grew up in Memphis told fellow lawmakers that he loved the city but this was about obeying the spirit of the law to protect historical monuments.

“And the law was very clear, and they got smart lawyers to figure out how to wiggle around the law, and I think that’s what the issue is,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick.

“Today is a demonstration that bad actions have bad consequences, and my only regret about this is it’s not in the tune of millions of dollars,” Rep. Andy Holt, of Dresden, said of the punishment.

Madden said that a citizen has started a GoFundMe account that allows people to donate to help defray the cost of the bicentennial celebration after the actions of the legislature.

“It looks like it could end up generating money for us,” she said.

Madden said the city “followed the law, period” in its actions in having the statues removed.

“The reason the city removed the statues is because they were divisive and the majority of Memphians did not want them here,” she said.

City council chairman Berlin Boyd on Wednesday said he was “still in utter disbelief” at the actions taken in the House.

“I am utterly surprised and it’s disheartening that the state would publicly show their actions to withhold funding from the city of Memphis because of our lawful decision to have the monuments removed,” he said. “We generate a lot of money for the state of Tennessee but we don’t see a high rate of return.”

Boyd said Memphis has always been treated like a “redheaded stepchild” by the politicians in Nashville.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris released a statement on the vote in the state House to leverage state power to punish lawful actions by political opponents in a Tennessee city.

“We should all be worried by the action of Republicans in control of the Tennessee House, as this sets up a dangerous precedent,” he said. “It means that local elected officials can be punished for lawful decisions that end up rubbing powerful elected officials in Nashville the wrong way.”

Harris stated that in such a scenario, “we are headed for disaster.”

“It starts with a $25,000 financial penalty against the city,” Harris said. “It might not be long before we have penalties against Memphis elected officials. Right after, someone will suggest elected officials should be forced from office or even jailed for their decisions or views. Disaster.”

The GoFundMe page to raise the $250,000 that the state pulled away can be reached at  

https://www.gofundme.com/mvc.php?route=category&term=Memphis%20Budget%20Replenishment

 

(The story includes a report by the Associated Press.)