by KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers appear divided over a proposal supporting the removal of a bust honoring a former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader from the state’s Capitol.

If approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the measure would encourage replacing the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest with an “appropriate tribute to a deserving Tennessean.”

The non-binding resolution sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Rick Staples would not result in the bust’s immediate removal, but Democrats hope to signal that the Legislature no longer approves of its prominent location between Tennessee’s House and Senate chambers.

“A descendant of slaves has come to you today to speak and move past the rhetoric that has been controversial and even divisive,” Staples told an all-white committee during Tuesday’s hearing.

Forrest was a Confederate cavalry general who amassed a fortune before the Civil War as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis. After the war, he was a leader of the Klan, which terrorized black people as it sought to reverse Reconstruction efforts and restore white supremacy.

His bust at the Capitol was unveiled in 1978 and has stirred opposition ever since. Some have called for adding more historical context to the bust, while others have suggested moving it to the state’s history museum.

Two members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans testified Tuesday against the resolution, arguing that Tennessee’s history should not be hidden and warned that it could set a precedent for other historical artifacts getting taken down.

Democratic lawmakers countered that Forrest’s actions today would be considered war crimes.

Removing the bust would require approval from the Capitol Commission and then the state’s Historical Commission, as laid out by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. The Capitol Commission, whose members include Tennessee’s secretary of state, state treasurer and state comptroller, is scheduled to meet in February to discuss the bust.
After getting a tepid response from Republican members, Staples asked for more time to draft an amendment that could appease the committee.