NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — You may remember a few years back when there was a battle to remove the bust of former KKK grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest from the State Capitol.
Ultimately, officials did vote to remove the bust with Gov. Bill Lee’s (R-Tennessee) blessing. But then came the aftermath.
“Just felt like 29 members on a commission is too many,” Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) said. “So, probably bring that back and try to decrease the number.”
Hensley filed a bill last session to decrease the number of members on the Tennessee Historical Commission, which typically has final say over historical—and lately, Confederate—monuments.
He originally introduced a modified version of the bill back in 2021 after the KKK wizard debate. Hensley then brought it back this year before kicking it to 2024.
“We’re really trying to get more of the commissions across the board where the legislature has more input,” he said.
The Historical Commission board currently has 29 members, most of which are appointed by the governor. Back in 2021, Lee replaced six members with his own choices within just three weeks of the Forrest bust vote.
Hensley’s bill would vacate the entire board and bring the total number down to 20 – five from the Lieutenant Governor, five from the Speaker of the House, six from the governor, and then state historian, state archeologist, state librarian and the Commissioner of Environment or their designee.
“You’ve got the consistent just pulling and tugging in between the legislature and the governor,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said. “The governor has basically ceded all power and responsibility to the state legislature.”
Democrats thrashed the idea, saying it’s a clear attempt to keep up things like Confederate monuments.
“What are you trying to protect, what are you trying to rush through?” Clemmons said. “How do you intend to use that board once you have control of it?”
Now, of note, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a separate bill along party lines earlier this year essentially creating a subcommittee of the historical commission.
The subcommittee will focus solely on historical monuments and memorials before the Historical Commission dives deeper. But if the subcommittee – which is appointed mainly by the Lieutenant Governor or Speaker of the House – decides not to take action on a certain monument, the commission won’t have the power to take it up.
Back in 2021, the Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) both opposed moving the Forrest bust.
“Not that the governor makes bad choices but just feel like the legislature should have some say in boards and commissions,” Hensley said. “Most of them now are appointed by the governor, and this is just a large commission. Twenty-nine members are just hard to work with.”