Memphis Drops Confederate Names From Parks, Sowing New Battles

Published: March 28, 2013

MEMPHIS — Two bright metal signs long welcomed visitors here to the grassy bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, near a cluster of Civil War cannons and historical plaques.

“Confederate Park,” one read. “Jefferson Davis Park,” read the other, beside a statue of the Confederacy’s president.

Last month, the Memphis City Council ordered the nameplates removed, leaving only empty frames. And ever since, a debate over that decision has flared — the latest clash over Confederate memorials in the South.

The Council voted to rename this city’s downtown parks — and a third honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate lieutenant general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — because it said the names evoked a racist past and were unwelcoming in a city where most of the population is black. Southern historical groups responded that the change dishonored troops who fought in the 1862 Battle of Memphis, a naval conflict in which the rebels suffered a major defeat.

“We have gotten hundreds and hundreds of e-mails complaining about the renamings,” said Lee Harris, the council member who led the effort. “I’m not afraid of our history. But I’m afraid of excluding some people from our parks and celebrating the conduct of the Confederacy.”

The dispute has grown, with the Ku Klux Klan planning to march through Memphis on Saturday, even as historians and religious leaders selected by the Council search for replacement names.

The Council chose temporary names that members said would not offend anyone: Memphis Park, Mississippi River Park and Health Sciences Park.

Mayor A. C. Wharton said reaching a compromise would be difficult. He angered Confederate groups last week by proposing that a statue of Ulysses S. Grant be erected to create balance and honor the Union troops.

“These are the growing pains of a democratic society,” Mr. Wharton said. “This is the South, remember. Traditions don’t die that easy.”

Memphis, where 63 percent of the residents are black, is the latest city to grapple with the delicate issue of Confederate names and monuments. In Selma, Ala., a bust of General Forrest was attacked with cinder blocks and vandalized with graffiti before disappearing last year, and the city decided to block a Confederate historical group from replacing it. In Florida and Tennessee, public schools named for General Forrest have faced protests and petitions to rename them.

The renaming of the Memphis parks on Feb. 5 came in anticipation of a bill, since passed by the State Legislature and now awaiting action from Gov. Bill Haslam, that would make it harder for local governments to change the names of any parks or monuments honoring wars or war heroes. State Representative Steve McDaniel, the bill’s sponsor and a Republican, said the bill would not retroactively affect Memphis’s park names.

At a tense meeting last week, the nine members of the Parks Renaming Committee debated permanent replacement names for an hour but could not reach a consensus. The committee planned to propose new names later this spring.

One committee member, Doug Cupples, a history professor at Christian Brothers University here, called for keeping the original names but building more monuments to honor African-American leaders. “I would like to see us adding to our history, not taking away from it,” he said. “We have a very expansive history, which includes some saints and some scoundrels.”

But the Rev. Keith Norman, a Baptist pastor who is on the committee, said restoring the park names would be like honoring Nazis in modern Germany. As Memphis tries to attract businesses, he said, “this sends the wrong signal to a very diverse city as to what our values are.”

The city is now bracing for the Klan rally. Chris Barker, the leader of the Klan’s Loyal White Knights chapter, said he had called members from across the country to march in Memphis on Saturday and attend a cross burning outside town. He did not give an estimate about how many members would attend.

“The Memphis City Council is basically trying to eradicate white people out of the history books across America,” Mr. Barker said.

The last time the Klan held a rally in Memphis, in 1998, fighting broke out between the group and counterprotesters, and the police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, arresting 20 people.

This time, the city has asked the public to avoid the march, and the Council has prohibited Klan members from wearing masks or carrying weapons. Mayor Wharton said the police would be monitoring the group closely.

Jim Strickland, a City Council member, said the entire parks debate had become a distraction from Memphis’s real problems. The city has a shrinking population and a high unemployment rate, and it is trying to negotiate a complicated merger of the county and city school systems.

“We have many, many challenges in this city that are much more important than the names of these parks,” Mr. Strickland said. “We ought to compromise and get it behind us.”

2013 The New York Times Company

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