The statue of Civil War Gen. Robert H. Hatton was erected in the Lebanon town square in 1912. / Larry McCormack / File / The Tennessean
By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
Their names are often set in stone. A bill making its way through the Tennessee legislature would make certain they remain there.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it much harder to rename or move memorials to the state's war heroes - including those associated with the Civil War.
The measure has prompted a backlash in Memphis, where local officials have hurriedly renamed three city parks in anticipation of its passage. But the bill is meant to put an end to the controversies that have erupted periodically across Tennessee over parks, buildings, statues and other commemorations of a war fought to a large degree over slavery.
"I just want to preserve our history," said state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, the legislation's sponsor. "History is history and should be left there."
The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, House Bill 553, is scheduled for a vote this evening in the state House of Representatives. A companion measure filed by state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, has not yet been brought up for discussion.
The broadly written measure would apply to memorials erected to practically every major conflict in U.S. history, from the French and Indian War to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's not just the Civil War monuments," Ketron said. "It's the War of 1812, the Revolutionary graves and all the rest."
The bill would require state and local governments that want to move or rename a memorial to apply first to the Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver. The bill also would bar measures to end maintenance of existing monuments.
The measure would raise hurdles to renaming parks, buildings, streets, schools and other public structures that honor figures to the Civil War - or, as the bill refers to the conflict, the "War Between the States."
Such controversies have flared several times in recent years. One of the most notable came in 2007, when Middle Tennessee State University considered changing the name of its Army ROTC building from Forrest Hall, a name that honors school benefactor, Civil War general and purported Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The bill has attracted little attention in Middle Tennessee or in the legislature, where it has sailed through House committees on voice votes. But in Memphis, city council members renamed three parks that honored Civil War figures, including Forrest.
The KKK has applied for a permit to organize a rally against the renamings.
The bill would not prevent those three parks from being renamed. But McDaniel said the measure would slow such actions in the future.
The controversy in Memphis may prompt some state lawmakers to give the measure a second look.
State Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, said he had supported the measure in committee but probably will not vote for it on the House floor.
"I think we need to pass on our heritage even if it wasn't good," said Shaw, who is black. "It helps me explain things to my children and grandchildren. ... But I don't want to tie the local folks' hands."