Coming home to a more honest, honorable Memphis
By Jeffery Robinson
I was born and raised in Memphis and left home to go to college in 1974. When I returned home last month for my brother’s memorial service, the city looked different.
Memphis State University is the University of Memphis. The mayor doesn’t own a barbecue chain. The city still spreads east from the river, but what used to be the beginning of farms and wooded areas is now part of a developed extension of city and county.
And a park that used to be called Nathan Bedford Forrest Park is now called Health Sciences Park.
Some things haven't changed. 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. 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 remembered when I was 5 and first asked about them. My parents, my older brother, and I were driving downtown and passed Forrest Park. I asked, “Who is that on that big horse?”
My young parents, then in their 30's, got quiet. Something was wrong. 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 Forrest, the man on the horse who sold people as property and killed American soldiers to keep doing it?
More than 50 years later, monuments to Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest have been removed from places of honor in Memphis. The City Council voted unanimously to allow it. The Chamber of Commerce supported it. The city’s first white mayor in nearly a quarter-century credited a "unified effort" that "stands in stark contrast to what happened in 1968" when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot here.
Memphis politicians seem uncomfortable admitting the critical role played by Tami Sawyer, a black woman who is a director of Teach for America in Memphis. Sawyer led a movement that empowered community voices to tell city government it was time for the monuments to go.
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 told The New York Times. “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.”
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 — has allowed America to avoid confronting the truth about our history.
As a criminal defense lawyer, I learned people can be wonderful in one way, contemptible in another. The 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, peddling human flesh for money, and getting filthy rich from it. His Memphis home was right across the street from his slave market. Wonderful personal qualities mean little compared to his defense of and contribution to white supremacy.
If Forrest changed his views at the end of his life, it doesn’t matter. No engraving on his monument read that “he was a white supremacist who changed his views and fought for racial justice.” Monuments to Forrest and Davis honored them as warriors for the Confederacy, nothing more, nothing less.
The removal of these monuments will not educate, feed, or free from prison even one person of color. But if acceptance of responsibility is key to progress, we should admit these monuments honor the fight to maintain slavery. Why should they stand on public land in America?
Jeffery P. Robinson is legal director of the Trone Center for Justice & Equality for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.