Analysis

Uprising topples racist statues from Belgium to Tennessee

The international uprising against racist police terror have been in the streets for weeks. The people have taken it upon themselves to destroy statues dedicated to white supremacist figures.  From the UK to Belgium to the United States, over a dozen statues glorifying white historical figures involved in genocide, white supremacist rhetoric, slavery, and colonialism have been vandalized and torn down by people who are offended by and sick of seeing them. 

A statue of Edward Colston, a British 17th century slave trader, was torn down with ropes in Bristol, England.  Statues of confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were vandalized in Richmond, Virginia, and a statue of Christopher Columbus that stood in the city was torn down, set on fire, and thrown into a lake.  

Statues of King Leopold II have been vandalized throughout Belgium.  Leopold II was responsible for the colonization and genocide of the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that killed 10 to 15 million Congolese.  In London, a statue of Winston Churchill was vandalized by protesters earlier this month who refuse to continue glorifying a white supremacist.  And more statues of Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee have been vandalized and knocked down in cities like Montgomery, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; and Miami, Florida.

In Nashville, Tennessee, a statue of Edward Carmack that stood in front of the State Capitol was toppled over by protesters on May 30.  The protest began that afternoon as a march for justice for George Floyd and all Black victims of police brutality.  Later that day, some of the protesters took their frustration out against state property.  They knocked over the statue, sprayed graffiti on and set fire to the Courthouse, and moved downtown where they targeted over 30 businesses along the main downtown street called Broadway.

Edward Carmack was a newspaper publisher in Tennessee known for writing attacks against investigative journalist and NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells during her lifetime. He maintained virulently racist viewpoints in print that advocated lynching and incited white mobs. There are other white supremacists who are glorified on state property in effigy and on monuments in Nashville, and Carmack’s was just one statue that many Nashvillians have long argued needed to be removed. Another is the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, but Tennessee officials seem to be reluctant to remove it.

The Tennessee General Assembly, which is composed of the state’s Republican-run House and Senate, voted last week to block the removal of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the State Capitol.  Forrest was a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.  He is infamous for his role in the Fort Pillow Massacre in West Tennessee during the Civil War where he led Confederate troops to massacre over 200 Union troops.  Most of those massacred were Black, and the Union troops had surrendered prior to being killed.

Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee was initially hesitant to comment on the bust or to take action towards it upon assuming office. Due largely to growing pressure from the public to remove the bust from the Capitol, Lee announced last year that he would approve the addition of written context to be displayed beside the bust. Yet, he has never publicly mentioned actually trying to remove it from the Capitol. This is so despite Tennesseans having protested and petitioned for the removal of the bust since its placement in the Capitol in 1978. It ought to be noted that the bust was conveniently placed where it currently rests after federal courts forced the state to begin busing Black students to segregated schools in 1971 and at the tail end of the Black Power Movement.

The state’s refusal to remove the Forrest bust is a huge insult to Black Tennesseans and to Black Americans in general. To add injury to insult, Gov. Lee pushed a bill which passed June 9 that releases him from having to publicly proclaim Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, as Tennessee governors have routinely done.  However, the bill leaves the day on the Tennessee state calendar as an official holiday on July 13. The state also continues to recognize Robert E. Lee Day and Confederate Decoration Day.

Jim Wohlgemuth, an active member of Veterans for Peace Nashville Chapter 089, wrote an impassioned email to members of the General Assembly upon hearing about their actions concerning the Forrest bust.  He wrote: “We have tried to point out to you that that bust has for decades been a symbolic knee on neck of the African American Community.  At the same time, we as veterans who fought and served under the flag of the UNITED STATES feel a slap in the face for our service as you honor a traitor.”

 Veterans for Peace Nashville Chapter 089 regularly meets and is active in the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements. It is only one of many local organizations that has been trying to call attention to the need for the state to remove the Forrest bust from the Capitol. For a number of years, the Chapter has held public vigils in Nashville on April 12 to commemorate the Fort Pillow Massacre. They also collected almost 2,000 signatures from Tennesseans and others who have demanded the bust’s removal.

Wohlgemuth suggested that the bust be moved to the Tennessee State Museum if the state insists upon keeping it. He writes that there also ought to be an honest and detailed description of all of Forrest’s crimes against Union troops and Black Americans and describe him as a domestic terrorist. Though one could argue that this is a very feasible compromise, the newspaper The Tennessean noted on June 11 that the “General Assembly will likely adjourn in the next week with no plans for the…bust’s removal and with Nathan Bedford Forrest Day still on the books.” 

 It remains to be seen if Tennessee officials will ever wake up and stop honoring Confederates and white supremacists on their own volition.  The uprising taking place now to stop the war on Black America is not only taking down statues that celebrate white supremacists, it is in the streets fighting to uproot the systemic racism.

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