Returning Home to Memphis, Where Two Confederate Statues Are No More


By Jeffery Robinson

I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. I returned home this month for my brother’s memorial service. The city looked different.

The Memphis State University of my youth is now the University of Memphis. The mayor no longer owns a barbecue chain. The city, bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, still spreads out to the east, but what used to be the beginning of farms and wooded areas is now part of a developed extension of city and county. A park that used to be called Nathan Bedford Forrest Park is now called Health Sciences Park.

But Memphis is still Memphis.

The economic and social divide of today looks like that of my childhood. The city’s history of racial division goes back to at least 1819, when the city was founded. Memphis was a hub for slave trading before the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated here. My niece has white high school friends who refer to the city as “Memphrica” — an allusion to Africa that reflects the fact the Memphis is 64 percent Black.

So I was surprised when I heard about Confederate statues in Memphis coming down. I thought back to when I was 5 years old and first asked my parents about them.

My parents, my older brother, and I were driving downtown. We had gotten barbecue and chitlins (“chitterlings” – if you don’t know, don’t ask) at a place by the river and were heading home. We passed what I now know was Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. I saw a statute of a man riding the biggest horse I had ever seen. I asked, “Who is that on that big horse?”

My young parents, then in their 30s, got quiet. Something was wrong.

I now realize they probably had no idea what to say. How could they explain America’s legacy of slavery, racial hatred, and oppression to a 5-year-old boy? How much detail was enough for a young
child? What facts could explain honoring the man on the horse if he sold people as property and killed American soldiers to keep doing it?

The horse and the man were still there when I arrived in Memphis this month, but just days after I left monuments to Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest were removed from places of honor in the city. I had new questions about the man and horse. How did the removal happen? And what does it mean?

The City Council, which is made up of seven Black and six white members, voted unanimously to sell the parks where the monuments stood to a nonprofit entity that quickly removed them. The Chamber of Commerce supported the removal. The New York Times quoted Mayor Jim Strickland, the city’s first white mayor in nearly a quarter-century, crediting a “unified effort” that “stands in stark contrast to what happened in 1968,” when Dr. King was fatally shot.

It is not that simple. Memphis politicians seem uncomfortable admitting the critical role played by Tami Sawyer, a Black woman who is a director of Teach for America. Sawyer lead a movement that empowered community voices to tell city government that it was time for the monuments to go. The New York Times described Sawyer’s advocacy as “persistent and sometimes disruptive.”

Well, it takes persistence to disrupt a false racial narrative that has for decades blocked “unified efforts” for racial justice.

“I think there’s a lot of people that are trying in Memphis to bridge this racial divide,” Sawyer said. “But I think that we have to have honest conversations about why that divide exists. Too often people want to say, ‘Let’s get to the healing,’ but not call out the years of systemic oppression that continue to exist.”

America clings to a false narrative about slavery — that it wasn’t that bad or that extensive, that it ended conclusively more than a century ago, that the Civil War was about states’ rights or something else — because we are desperate to avoid confronting the truth about our history.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I learned people are rarely just one thing. They can be wonderful in one way, contemptable in another. A historical marker at the site of Forrest’s home in Memphis notes, “Following marriage in 1845 he came to Memphis, where his business enterprises made him wealthy.”

“Business enterprises.” Forrest was a slave trader. He peddled human flesh for a price and he got filthy rich from it. His home in Memphis was right across the street from his slave market, so he could sell human beings into bondage and then stroll home to be a Southern gentleman. Any wonderful personal qualities were greatly outweighed by his defense of and contribution to white supremacy.

Slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Secession statements from Confederate states make that clear. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy said, “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Forrest is quoted in a foreword to his own biography as saying, “If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin’ for?”

Some say Forrest changed his views at the end of his life, but it really doesn’t matter. There was no engraving on the foundation of his monument saying “he was a white supremacist who changed his views and tried to do penance for his sins against humanity.” The monuments to Forrest and Davis honored them simply as warriors for the Confederacy.

The truth is that removal of these monuments will not educate, feed, or free from prison even one person of color. But the admission of the true nature of our racialized past is a necessary part of real structural change leading to racial justice.

They owe penance for their sins, but all that’s left of them are statues. The legacy of the sins remain, so it is just that the statues come down.

Jeffery Robinson is the ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

46 thoughts on “Returning Home to Memphis, Where Two Confederate Statues Are No More”

  1. Tia Will

    But the admission of the true nature of our racialized past is a necessary part of real structural change leading to racial justice.”

    The legacy of the sins remain, so it is just that the statues come down.”

    I believe both statements to be true as written. But the author omits ( or downplays) one important aspect. Symbols matter. With the statues gone, no 5 year old child will see those statues as part of the fabric of their society. No family, black or white, will have the awkward conversation of what those statues mean unless they seek such works our in a museum deliberately. True, the change is infinitesimal and painfully slow, but it is real change.

    1. Dave Hart

      If symbols matter and statues actually serve a purpose, maybe a statue of a slave being whipped would serve the need for a factual reminder of the fabric of their society.  That is a political decision for the citizens of Memphis.  In the meantime, removal is a good first, if overdue, step.

  2. Howard P

    And we should obliterate the Washington monument, and the Jefferson memorial, as both owned slaves…

    Both located on or near Capitol Mall, in DC…

    Several Counties in CA that need to be re-named… and some Cities and schools…

    1. Howard P

      Let’s see… do you see any difference between Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis and/or Forrest?  They’re all the same, right?  Lee’s statue is coming down right and left… Charlottesville, New Orleans…

      In 1865, after the war, Lee was paroled and signed an oath of allegiance, asking to have his citizenship of the United States restored… he did not receive a pardon and his citizenship was not restored.

      The author of the piece and the title implies that all confederates were the same… THAT’s my point…

      He was a descendent of Martha Washington.  Both Washington and Jefferson were fine with having slavery embodied in the US Constitution… and, with neither blacks nor women entitled to vote.

      Maybe you can explain the differences?


      1. Howard P

        Third paragraph should have been the last… ran out of time to edit…

        Washington and Jefferson both sought secession from the government in place as of 1770…

  3. CTherese Benoit

    “The truth is that removal of these monuments will not educate, feed, or free from prison even one person of color.”
    I agree with this which is why I believe taking down the controversial monuments does more harm than good. This “movement” is working in reverse and has infected unhealed wounds. We should have healed them first. Truth is were those old wounds healed through MORE knowledge of our shared history – taking them down would not even feel necessary.

    The monuments should have stayed; they are our history that we all need a greater understanding of. We could have added to them, it would have been better. We could have started programs for education to build greater empathy in communities.

    America would benefit from more white Americans having greater empathy and compassion toward our backstory. America would also benefit from Black Americans seeing the silver lining of slavery. It’s a horrible truth to consider but do any of us (black women especially) honestly think our destinies in the Congo were gentler than our suffering as slaves? It breaks my heart to say it and I hate that it is true but the prevailing culture in most of western Africa has always been – an continues to be – profoundly violent and oppressive of women especially.

    Just a few years ago in the Congo a woman was forced by her fellow black African villagers to commit incest with her stepson (or rather, “the son of her husband’s 1st wife because men there have many) in the public swuare while the entire village watched and chastised them. Afterward her and her stepson’s heads were chopped off and left to rot for days as a warning for no one else to commit their “crime.”

    What was their crime? Serving some bits of fish in a soup dish that offended the voodoo gods… Seriously.

    It is disappointing that human nature so often falls short of our greatest potential. None of us are exempt. My blood curls to know what my African ancestors endured in this America when they came here. However, I am also grateful to their deep suffering because it is a bridge that brough all of us here… All of us African Americans today.

    The truth is our first traitors were our fellow black Africans who sold us and later got exploited by the greedy opportunities they chose to do business with. And I don’t doubt for a minute those greedy opportunists rationalized that even as slaves they’d be treating us better than our own people were in Africa – because most slaveowners did not decapitate us for serving bad soup. They did many other abuses nonetheless. But the truth is if we are going to be mad at those white statues, then we need to be mad at our black African Kings as well. All a$$holes in cahoots.

    So see the silver lining and forgive. The monuments can be bittersweet. Taking them down is a provocative ruse from far more worthy movements for equality.

    1. Dave Hart

      Statues that portray the leaders of a society based on slavery in a “glorious” or bigger than life pose are inappropriate and should never have been erected in the first place.  Removing them is simply overdue.  Now, it can be argued that they should be relocated or preserved in a venue dedicated to evaluating them in historical context.  The WWI Museum in Kansas City has displays of the German and American propaganda posters that were created to do what these statues are designed to do:  instill a point of view about history and by doing so, guide our values in the present.  Placing statues of people, especially specific individuals, in public places is always done as a gesture of reverence and of honor.  No statues for Charles Manson and not likely to be.  So when the deeds of these people are centered on promoting and saving slavery, it really doesn’t matter that they liked kittens or read bedtime stories to their children.

      As far as critiquing the behavior of others involved in the slave trade from foreign lands, that really has to be the responsibility of their home countries just as these statues that are now being removed are the responsibility of the citizens in the areas where the statue subjects were active and revered.

  4. CTherese Benoit

    My point with the African kings remark is that resentment eats forever or else it starves to death. If you’re going to be angry at one person/entity you will always find someone and something new to be angry about because everything is connected.

    In my own trials I could braid my resentments back to every single contact I have made including myself or God for those who believe in one. There is no purpose or progress in this so it is always better to heal and forgive. The only way to do this is to understand. Understanding requires more information, not less just because some truths are too hard to look at.

    This is where well meaning self proclaimed “liberals” get it wrong imho. It’s the same mentality that convinces someone to erase their soul when legitmate emotions are inconvenient. How can anyone heal and become stronger this way?

    1. Dave Hart

      We don’t forgive Adolph Hitler by raising a statue and portraying him in a reverent light in our town square.  I find your statements to be very confusing.  Forgiveness is a personal matter, not one for the town square.  A truth and reconciliation process is similar and maybe that’s what you mean to get at here.  However, that is a social and political endeavor and the creation of slave museums is an example of how to go about that.  Such museums may be the proper place to relocate a statue of Jefferson Davis as a means to show how evil can be held in reverence.

  5. John Hobbs

    If removing the symbols of oppression speeds the healing, great. The roots of hatred run far deeper than outward signs of ancestral veneration. If the 2016 presidential election results tell us anything, it is that racial hatred and secessionist inclinations run very high in this country. It may well turnout that more corporeal symbols of hate will have to fall from their pedestals before America is made great again.

  6. CTherese Benoit

    Whoever moderated my first comment by deleting it posted my second comment which makes no sense by itself. Anyway; I am glad for anyone who feels liberated by taking these historical monuments down. However, I could not disagree more with them that this is necessary or effectively productive. My first post explained why but its gone. Cheers to the new year!

    [moderator: it went into the spam filter. I don’t know why. I’ve released it.

  7. Jeff M

    When we remove all the historical symbols that reactionaries and claimed victims claim are harmful to victims, lives will not be improved and anger and resentment will just shift.

    We will grow new roots of hatred resulting from just another type of tribal oppression and demonstrated hatred of others.

    The social justice left still believes that it can win hearts and minds by weaponizing identity politics through its activism and media connections.   I believe it is destroying hearts and minds… setting up a greater us vs. them.  We have a recent election as proof.

    And it is creating a new model of ugly American… one that never really looks at themselves in the mirror.

    1. David Greenwald

      Jeff: Seems like by honoring people who stood for treason and fought to preserve white supremacy, we are making the wrong statement about our values of today.

      1. Jeff M

        Progressives need to make up their minds.  Either they are for social progress that defines a new morality, or they don’t and seek to persecute history for its morality as being the same.

        But since the former has already been chosen, the latter should be off limits.

        Frankly, the social justice left demanding this removal of historical artifacts because it triggers them, is demonstrating significant ignorance of understanding about the history they seek to defile.

        The Civil War… less than 50 years following the defining battle led by future President Andrew Jackson to defeat the British from taking New Orleans (note that slave labor was used to build the defenses around the city)… a battle that if lost would have likely completely changed the trajectory of the western expansion of the US… and a city and territory where residents didn’t even yet subscribe to being American… the republic wasn’t a nation as much as a collection of colonies, states and territories with greater tribal loyalty to their colonies, states and territories than to the nation as a whole.

        So here we sit today after abolishing slavery, after advancing civil rights, after implementing copious anti-discrimination and hate laws.   And now progressives are using our modern sit of morality and social norms to overlay on a time that was completely different.

        It is lunacy.  It is idiocy.  It is destructive.  It is divisive.  It does not do a thing to advance the cause of improving the human condition.  In fact it does the opposite.  It is a big activist and media-fired temper tantrum… mostly just lashing out and poking the people that the American left sees as responsible for the election that so upsets them… even though the same behavior they are demonstrating with this southern history poking was and largely is responsible for the political left losing the election.

        You tell me of a historical statue you think is worthy of honoring and I will list all the things that person did that are morally wrong by today’s standards.

        Basically what the social justice left is demanding, like ISIS, that we remove all idols other than those that fit within their ideological (theological) beliefs.

        Most believe that it is much better to leave up these historical artifacts where history can be told and retold to explain where we came from and how we got to where we are.

        And this is not just a blue vs red issue.  There are many Democrats divided on this.  But the social justice crusade is on a tear… and I am guessing it will hurt the Democrat’s political prospects in coming national elections.

        1. Dave Hart

          Wacky statements running amok.  I have always been leery of erecting statues to anyone precisely because of what you point out:  nobody is perfect and a statue canonizes people who were actually flesh and blood and flawed like all of us.  Statues have been erected for groups of people like soldiers who have fallen in battle, firefighters, miners who lost their lives in mines, merchant marine sailors lost at sea.  These statues remind us of periods of history or segments of society who sacrificed for something bigger than themselves.  We can even imagine they are flawed, but that is not the point of such statues. But when we portray individuals as the embodiment of entire social epochs we are asking for trouble and rightfully so.  I’m not even crazy about the Gandhi statue, but nobody wanted to listen to the entire history, so there it is until it gets removed.

          The joggers at 3rd and F are appropriate and symbolize something good that may become anachronistic in the future when we become so entrenched in our digital devices and no longer need bodies, but they will never go out of style in our desire to affirm the idea of community.  So, statues to individuals suck and should not be erected.  The sole purpose of a statue to an individual is to instill reverence for that person and encourage us to NOT consider their weaknesses.  That is a bad idea.

        2. Howard P

          Dave,  the joggers statue needed to be to be moved/re-oriented… some minor injuries occured prior… ALL statues have dangers associated with them…

        3. Tia Will

          the social justice left demanding this removal of historical artifacts because it triggers them, is demonstrating significant ignorance of understanding about the history they seek to defile.”

          I might agree with this statement if the statues in question were what you say they are, namely historical artifacts. However, they are not in any anthropologic or historical sense. They were created long after the “heroic events” in question for political/sociologic purposes, not as historically accurate depictions.

  8. CTherese Benoit

    I had a Nigerian housemate for a year. She was from a small village where many slaves have been taken from long ago. The story has been passed down verbally. There was a war between tribes and the leader of one tribe struck a deal with the Europeans to sell the strongest fighters from her tribe. That’s what started the trade in her region. Likely the same elsewhere. This dirty move backfired because once their strongest had been sold off, the remaining “victors” of the village war were even more vulnerable to being further exploited with/without anyone’s consent.

    To date, these villages – many of them; still religiously commit horrific abuses against each other to appease superstitions or petty jealousies… The history of African slavery is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking and I truly believe knowing the whole story would give everyone a different perspective – while offering a lot of healing and more inclusive compassion…

    This move to take monuments is like putting cheap thick makeup over acne. Oh well… No one likes the ugly truths.

    1. David Greenwald

      “This move to take monuments is like putting cheap thick makeup over acne. Oh well… No one likes the ugly truths.”

      Or is it the first step of acknowledgment that (a) our country was founded on the notion of white supremacy and (b) these guys are not and should not be looked upon as heroes.

      1. CTherese Benoit

        I get what you are saying and what is easiest for most people to see – but this is so much more complex which is why we would have done better to complete these monuments rather than tear them down.

        The story of America is extraordinary. Despite so many of our founders succumbing to their dark sides – so much good prevailed. We can only see this if we look at the entire picture, not select fragments or from whatever angle least offends our personal values.

        Many heroes are accidental. It’s like that Dustin Hoffman comedy; when Bernie Laplante saves every passenger from a crashed plane when he only wanted to steal a purse. lol.

        I sometimes cry when I think of the way children were treated in slavery. I traced my probable ancestors to a sugar plantation in Louisiana – my great-grandmother’s parent’s were born as slaves. Such sad lives and a lost heritage. But in the same breath – African Americans originated from mostly cruel and oft barbaric societies. Not to say they are without great talents and virtues… but their cultural practices are among some of the most violent and oppressive in the world.

        I liken my African ancestors to today’s refugees fleeing horrors at home only to be exploited by the hands that take them in. This seldom motivates them to return home because no matter how bad they are treated in their new land, it is better than whatever they face at “home.”

        … Of course Africans did not voluntarily leave Africa and they did not have the option of returning home. But I wonder how many of them might have chosen a life of slavery voluntarily to escape things like female circumcision or being killed on a whim when suspected of witchcraft… Maybe none – we cant be sure..

        But I do know that many today would chose a life of slavery under the same conditions in the Antebellum south if it meant their children could escape today’s Congo – which hasn’t changed much. Ultimately, a few generations later or in advance of what African ancestors could have foreseen – that is exactly what happened. I just think a full history would lend a different perspective.

        These monuments are a part of that story, we need them AND the rest to gain the understanding that leads to forgiveness, healing, compassion, and gratitude for good being born of evil.

      2. Jeff M

        “our country was founded on the notion of white supremacy”


        “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

        Apparently our nation was founded on the notion of male supremacy… but that was pretty common of the time and before the time… and we have progressed beyond that to now understand that women are the supreme gender.

        1. Don Shor

          “our country was founded on the notion of white supremacy”


          “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal

          Except, y’know, some are just 3/5 equal.

        2. Howard P

          You raise an interesting fact… black men, including former slaves, got the right to vote long before women did… that too, is part of our history…

        3. David Greenwald

          Jeff: you say nope and then contradict yourself.  As you know all white men were created equal at the onset of the constitution.

          Howard: depends on what you mean by got the right to vote – where, when, and under what circumstances.  Indeed women got the right to vote in 1918 but you could argue blacks didn’t until the 1963 Voting Rights Act for all intents and purposes.

        4. Howard P

          David… history is not your strong suit, apparently…

          There is nothing in the Constitution, as originally written, including the Bill of Rights about “equality” of individuals… that would be part of the Declaration of Independence… thirteen years prior to the Constitution.

          Black men had the right to vote during the ‘Reconstruction” period… then the ‘Jim Crow laws’ eroded it, made it difficult… extremely so in some states.

          Some free black men were allowed to vote in some northern states even before the Civil War.

          I stand by the words I posted…


        5. Jeff M

          David: “our country was founded on the notion of white supremacy”

          No it was not.  Our country was founded on the premise that all men are created equal.  It was in fact this premise that justified the abolition of slavery.  And the notion that all men are created equal is one of the many things that makes the Great Experiment second to none in the history of nations as it was generally not the case anywhere else… and still is not the case in many countries.

          What our country was founded on and what is practiced are often at odds.  And this is why we need real jurists in the federal courts and not activists.

          But to say that our country was founded on the notion of white supremacy is completely false.

          It was primarily white males that came up with this great set of founding governing documents that have helped make the US the most inclusive and successfully diverse country on God’s green earth… and also primarily white males that fought to end slavery which was always an abomination of our founding principles.

          There are other modern abominations… some which derived from the Obama Nation.

      3. CTherese Benoit

        Dave (Hart) these are all opinions and I doubt anyone’s will change but –

        I believe understanding history helps people have reverence for the present. Some may choose to worship statues but when done well a  monument only serves to tell a story; not just of the person being represented but of the evolution of our society. American slavery can also teach Americans that hope is never misplaced because while we can control our own actions – we cannot control how the world reacts to them…. In time, scales balance regardless of who holds power for a season.

        Forgiveness may be “personal” as you say but its very necessary for American people to heal. If country’s had a national sentiment – that should be America’s. It is so necessary for our true progress.

        As far as “wacky” goes – thats your opinion. But I am of the belief that erasing the past, devaluing nature, and suppressing emotions are all very dangerous threats to social progress. All compromise our ability to be truly self aware and tuned in to our own moral compass independent of what society dictates to us.

        Im sure you can look at Hitler and find some elements of all these things taking place as he rose to power. More relevent to this is the tactics used in slavery itself. Erasing histories, denying the relevance of their natural states, attempting to control their perceptions and feelings – this is how you make a slave.

        Some elements of “progressive” trends end up looking a lot like sophisticated chains… Meanwhile “the right” is all about locking people up in prisons we recognize. Maybe the labels are blinding too many of us to a bigger picture.

        Since the commom American – which I count myself amongst – either lacks the time or desire to read – open squares that draw attention and tell our story could be useful.

        And no matter how you slice it tearing down these symbols has not done enough to help racism to warrant the resentments it has stirred. There were so many more worthy actions we could have taken.

  9. John Hobbs

    “Seems like by honoring people who stood for treason and fought to preserve white supremacy, we are making the wrong statement about our values of today.”

    “Or is it the first step of acknowledgment that (a) our country was founded on the notion of white supremacy and (b) these guys are not and should not be looked upon as heroes.”

    The problem is that so many who claim to be Americans so blithely accept the hateful and traitorous acts of the past to justify the traitorous and hateful acts of the current POTUS.


  10. CTherese Benoit

    I once heard a minister say “God’s will always trumps man’s folley.” It stuck with me. Religious or not, it’s a nice thought. The more we know, the more we will find evidence of this, always.

  11. Alan Miller

    A powerful piece.

    I agree with both sides about the statues — I can’t reconcile that, both arguments are valid.  I like the idea of removing these symbols of oppression, yet taking up the logical chain, you do end up dumping a few presidents, and that get complicated, to say the least.  Perhaps the “completion” idea is best.

    However, entombing statements like “his business enterprises made him wealthy” when he was a slave trader — that is the very basis of the watered-down lies that create a brainwashed, false history clearly written by the “master” side of the master-slave equation.  The same is done regarding Native American genocide, relocation and reprogramming.  The ugliness must be taught along with all the depth, blood and tears, right down to our seven-year-olds just learning there is no Santa.

        1. CTherese Benoit

          We digress but I think most children gradually start suspecting their parents as “Santa.” That small window in their lives where they see the world as a magical place is a gentle transition into this harsh world of ours. Kids have the entire rest of their lives to be bored and cynical. 😛

      1. Dave Hart

        There are no statues to Santa, and I understand he’s pretty hostile to organized labor evidenced by thwarting a vote of the elves to form a union.

        1. Howard P

          There are no statues to Santa

          El Wrongo… took me about 2 seconds to find,


          [just googled Santa Claus, Indiana]

          Now, if you are talking bronze, publicly maintained, in major public places, maybe…

    1. Howard P

      The ugliness must be taught along with all the depth, blood and tears, right down to our seven-year-olds just learning there is no Santa.

      Much truth in that… I have found that even with ‘heroes’, it is useful and informative to understand the serious flaws some of them had, that they overcame… or even wrestled with… one can be heroic, and worthy of admiration, even if they never were close to being a saint.

      “Sanitation” of the flaws is not good.

      1. CTherese Benoit

        There’s a thought. When you tell your kids Santa doesn’t exist; do so by waking them on Christmas morning in your Krampus costume. :-O lol

        No, do not. Seriously.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for