In 2016, Tennessee’s (mostly white) state legislature passed the Heritage Protection Act to protect monuments of historical figures — with a goal of stopping cities from taking down Confederate statues.
This week, Memphis took down two Confederate statues anyway — after lawmakers in the (mostly black) city found a creative workaround.
The state law prohibits the removal, relocation, alteration, or renaming of “[a]ny statue, monument, memorial, bust, nameplate, plaque, artwork, flag, historic display, school, street, bridge, or building … on public property,” including those that honor figures from past US military conflicts, without a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission. The commission in October rejected Memphis’s request for a waiver.
But Memphis City Council members found a loophole: What if the property wasn’t public anymore? So the city on Wednesday agreed to sell two parks to a nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace Inc., which is run by Shelby County Commissioner and attorney Van Turner.
Shortly thereafter, Greenspace took down two Confederate monuments at the parks — of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who was also a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) — to chants of, “Na na na na / Na na na na / Hey hey hey / Goodbye!”
The sale will almost certainly be challenged in court. And the Tennessee House has already called for an investigation. But for now, the statues have been relocated to an undisclosed location (for security reasons).
This is just the latest phase in America’s ongoing battle over Confederate symbols and monuments.
The current debate goes back to a mass shooting in 2015, when a self-described white supremacist shot and killed nine people in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He drew a lot of attention for posing with the Confederate flag in images that came out after the shooting — and that helped spur a fight within South Carolina about whether it should take down a Confederate flag that had flown at the state capitol for years. The state eventually agreed to officially take down the flag (after it was unofficially taken down by activist Bree Newsome).
Since then, many cities and states, particularly in the South, have been questioning their own Confederate symbols. The argument is simple: The Confederacy fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy in the United States, and that isn’t something the country should honor or commemorate in any way.
But as conservative forces resist the shift, some activists, including in governments, are taking matters into their own hands — sometimes with creative solutions. That’s what we saw in Memphis this week.
For more on the battle over Confederate statues, read Vox’s explainer.