Vote sends renaming issue to City Council
By Jacinthia Jones
July 22, 2005
Saying it wanted to remove offensive signs and symbols, the Center City Commission approved a resolution Thursday asking the Memphis City Council to "consider and evaluate" renaming three parks commemorating the Confederacy.
The resolution, approved on a voice vote, stops short of recommending changing the names of Confederate, Jefferson Davis and Forrest parks Downtown.
It also does not address the removal of the statues of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest, who later became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is buried with his wife in the park bearing his name.
Shelby County Commissioner and CCC member Walter Bailey pushed for the measure, saying the parks represent "skewed history."
The decision — after weeks of debate, petitions and name-calling by all sides — set off an immediate reaction by Confederate descendants and supporters.
"I think that Walter Bailey is racist and he’s had a racist agenda from Day 1," an angry Tom Williams declared minutes after the vote. "This was nothing more than a kangaroo court."
Sporting a U.S. Marines T-shirt and a camouflage-painted cast on his right leg, the 69-year-old member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans from Germantown railed against the "revisionist" agenda of the commission and complained about the public not being allowed to speak.
"I’m a native Memphian and I tell you this is going to divide the races more than anything that ever happened here in the last 30 years."
Nearby community activist Norman Redwing was pleased with the vote.
"I wonder if they would be happy if there were a Nat Turner Park? He killed a bunch of white folks," Redwing said, referring to the leader of a slave revolt in 1831. "I think history should be told on both sides."
The two were among the 40 or so observers crammed into the commission’s meeting room to hear the vote.
State Sen. Steve Cohen, who sits on the CCC board, cast the lone vote against the resolution. Member and City Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Holt recused herself.
Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, argued that, although he supports improved race relations, the commission had no business trying to name or rename parks.
"There have been things that have offended me as a minority," he said of being Jewish. He said he was offended on occasion by the statue of Ramesses at the foot of The Pyramid because he owned Jewish slaves.
Still, he said, it’s best to honor all sides of history.
Cohen noted that other cities besides Memphis have monuments and tourist attractions honoring Civil War history.
But a majority of commissioners saw things differently.
"Right or wrong, these parks are popularly perceived as racist to the community," Commissioner Paul Morris said.
"Public parks should be places of relaxation and recreation."
Said commission member state Rep. Barbara Cooper, "We don’t just go out and honor folks who murder folks."
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