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Goodbye, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Hello, Dolly?

A Tennessee Republican has proposed replacing a bust of the Confederate general with a tribute to the iconic country star

Dolly Parton, shown here in 2014, has been a country music legend for decades. (Tabatha Fireman/Redferns via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

Since 1978, the Tennessee State Capitol has been home to a bust of the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who after the Civil War served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The movement to take the controversial statue down has found an unlikely ally in Jeremy Faison, a Republican member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. And as Faison tells Natalie Allison of the Tennessean, he has a rather unexpected proposal for who might fill the gap left in the monument’s wake: country music icon and Tennessee native Dolly Parton.

Faison wasn’t always in favor of removing the Forrest bust; like many other Republican officials, he once thought it should remain in its place outside the House and Senate chambers. But after a conversation with G.A. Hardaway, an African-American state representative from Memphis who encouraged Faison to read Forrest’s racist, ideological writings, he changed his mind.

Forrest is alternatively remembered as a “born military genius” and a figure whose "claim to fame was reinforcing white supremacy as a renowned slave trader [and] murderous Confederate general." Before the Civil War, he made a fortune from several ventures, including the sale of enslaved laborers. When conflict broke out, he earned a reputation as an effective and brutal commander; one of the most notorious episodes of the Civil War, was the Fort Pillow Massacre, which saw Forrest’s men massacre some 300 Union soldiers, many of them African-American, after they had surrendered—“an unambiguous war crime,” according to the American Battlefield Trust.

After the war, Forrest led the Ku Klux Klan as Grand Wizard for a few years and the extent of his influence on the hate group is disputed, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Forrest ultimately called for the Klan to disband in 1869. As author J. Michael Martinez explains in his book Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Invisible Empire, Forrest's order derived from his military experience, seeing the KKK as too chaotic to be organized. "In military terms, Forrest agreed with the mission of the Klan," Martinez writes. "He simply objected to the lack of discipline among rank-and-file Kluxers and their poorly executed plan of attack."

Chapters of the KKK continued to be active after Forrest's call, and “at the very least [Forrest’s] prestige served to expand membership rolls.” says Britannica.

Upon taking a closer look at Forrest’s legacy, Faison came to believe that the best place for the Capitol bust is in the state museum. "I fundamentally reject any notion by someone saying that moving him to the museum is trying to whitewash history," Faison tells Allison. “If we want to preserve history, then let’s tell it the right way.”

The representative wants to do more than simply take the statue down; he also hopes to shake up the representation of prominent figures on the Capitol. At the moment, he explains to Allison, eight alcoves reside in the Capitol, seven of which are “filled with white men."

"My daughter is 16, and I would love for her to come into the Capitol and see a lady up there,” he adds. “What's wrong with someone like Dolly Parton being put in that alcove?” Faison also suggested another female figure that he believes is worthy of a tribute: Anne Dallas Dudley, a prominent leader of the fight for women’s suffrage in both her home state of Tennessee and on the national stage. (Dudley was previously twice honored in Tennessee, where ratification of the 19th Amendment officially added it to the Constitution in August 1920).

Faison’s push to relocate the Forrest bust reflects a broader movement that has seen the nation grapple with its public monuments to controversial Civil War figures. The question of what to do with such memorials remains a subject of often heated debate: Should they be removed, contextualized with signage, carted off to museums, left alone entirely?

The suggestion to replace a Confederate statue with a tribute to a country star is perhaps a bit unorthodox, but Parton is one of Tennessee’s most dazzling native daughters. She is a tremendously successful singer and songwriter, an actor, an author, a philanthropist. Her theme park, Dollywood, is a famed Tennessee attraction, though her nearby dinner-theater attraction had its own history of Confederate mythology. As Aisha Harris reported in Slate in 2017, Parton's Dixie Stampede "pitt[ed] North against South in a friendly and fun rivalry," but by the next year had dropped Dixie from its name and "(mostly) stamped out the Dixie and plantation imagery from the production too."

As Chris Bundgaard of WKRN points out, any changes made to the Forrest bust will have to be approved by the Tennessee Capitol Commission, then the Tennessee Historical Commission. Lawmakers have yet to introduce a resolution urging the Historical Commission to take the statue down. But who knows? Perhaps, sometime in the future, Dolly Parton will be honored with a statue not too far from her Tennessee mountain home.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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