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Memphis Uses Legal Loophole To Defeat State Law Banning Confederate Statue Removal

Memphis just tore down the city’s Confederate statues.

Tennessee law forbids the removal of such statues by government entities, but the city tore them down anyway–through the use of a legal loophole. Here’s how Memphis did it.

First, the city sold two parks hosting Confederate statues to a non-profit group. The parks in question are Health Science Park and Fourth Bluff Park.

Health Science Park is the former site of a statue dedicated to the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Fourth Bluff Park previously contained a statue dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Each park was sold–or, rather, a city-owned easement in the case of Fourth Bluff Park was sold–to Memphis Greenspace, Inc. for $1,000 each.

Because Greenspace isn’t a government entity, but rather a private party, they can remove the statues at will. And that’s exactly what happened overnight last night–the culmination of a months-long plan to sidestep Tennessee’s statewide prohibition on Confederate statue removal.

The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act was originally passed in 2013 and then updated in 2016. That state law doesn’t contain explicit language protecting Confederate monuments but is widely viewed as a heavy-handed method to prevent progressive local governments from removing such monuments. It reads, in relevant part:

[N]o memorial regarding a historic conflict, historic entity, historic event, historic figure, or historic organization that is, or is located on, public property, may be removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered.

According to Memphis’ Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen, the Confederate statues will be stored in an undisclosed location for security purposes. City officials have acknowledged they will likely face lawsuits over the end-run removal process.

Mayor Jim Strickland taunted conservative critics and pro-Confederate Nashville politicians in a post on Facebook immediately after the Memphis City Council approved the plan late yesterday afternoon. He wrote:

A few moments ago, I signed the ordinance that completed our sale of Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park. Operations on those sites tonight are being conducted by a private entity and are compliant with state law.

At a press conference later that evening, Strickland sounded a more unified note, saying, “Though some of our city’s past is painful, we are all in charge of our city’s future. Black and white, young and old — every single one of us. That’s the symbolism for which I want this day to be remembered.”

[image via screengrab]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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