Just south of Nashville, Tennessee, along Interstate 65, there sits a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest riding on horseback, surrounded by Confederate battle flags. For those with little more than a passing interest in American history, Forrest may be only known to you as the person after whom Forrest Gump was named in the movie. Others will know that he was a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. It’s been sitting there on private land since 1998, but given recent events you can imagine that it’s become the target of renewed political interest.
The Metro Council approved a resolution earlier this month that asks the Tennessee Department of Transportation “take the necessary action” to plant vegetation to block the view of the private owned statue that stands along the interstate.
But TDOT commissioner John Schroer informed the council on Monday morning that it does not plant vegetation on its property for the sole purpose of blocking items on nearby private land.
Schroer’s response came in an email to the Metro clerk’s office that reads:
“TDOT does not plant foliage on its right-of-way with the sole intention of blocking items on private property based on what might be offensive to some and not to others. Therefore, the request of Metro Nashville’s Council to have TDOT plant vegetation on I-65 near the Harding Place Exit is respectfully denied.”
There’s no telling how far opponents are willing to go on this one, but it’s worth keeping an eye on just for the interesting combination of private property rights and state vs local government involvement. It’s something of a convoluted story because, as noted above, the statue sits on private property. It was created by someone who was not only an artist, but also one of the attorneys who defended James Earl Ray. (Talk about throwing some more kerosene on the fire.) Also, the resolution wasn’t asking for the statue or the flags to be removed, but for the state government to spend the money to plant shrubs and trees along the interstate so people couldn’t see it while driving by.
That part of the request, at first glance, makes it seem like the state’s response is perfectly reasonable. Why would they invest the resources to add vegetation for no reason other than to hide a piece of private property? It’s a fair question, except that the government already invested resources in clearing all of the existing trees and shrubs shortly after the statue was erected eighteen years ago for the express purpose of making it visible from the highway. That too required action in the legislature to accomplish. Obviously it doesn’t obligate them to honor the current request, but it makes it a bit more ticklish when they claim that such activities fall outside their purview.
I must confess I’ve never seen the statue in person, even given the fair amount of time I spend in the Volunteer State. (I’m usually further east than that.) But looking at the photos, let’s be honest… that’s not a particularly flattering statue.
It’s made of fiberglass, not stone, and it looks rather cartoonish to me. But hey… I’m no art critic. And the artistic quality of the piece really isn’t what’s at issue here. First question: being on private property, is it the business of the state to either hide or feature the statue to motorists? Number two: Forrest was a Lt. General, but is he a “historic figure” of the Confederacy on the same par with Lee and Jackson in terms of immortalizing his figure? Third: does his position as Grand Wizard detract from that historical reverence significantly as compared to others who were simply slave owners or supporters of the institution at the time?
I look forward to your thoughts. As I said… this is a bit more complicated than a flag on State Capitol grounds or a statue carved into a mountainside.