Sunday column: Nathan Bedford Forrest Day and political winds

Monday is Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, so declared by Gov. Bill Haslam in an official proclamation signed a couple of weeks before he declared, unofficially, that the Confederate general is not the sort of fellow he would choose to honor.

Haslam officially acted in accord with a state law, enacted in 1971, that declares the governor has a “duty” to annually proclaim six official “days of special observance” honoring legislatively-chosen historical figures on their birthdays. From the Civil War era, there are a couple of others besides Forrest — Robert E. Lee Day (Jan. 19) and Abraham Lincoln Day (Feb. 12).

Officially, the law also says that the governor “shall invite the people of this state to observe the days in schools, churches, and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of such dates.”

The official Haslam proclamations for the five years he’s been in office don’t do any of that stuff — he apparently didn’t see his duty as going that far. But he did quietly proclaim Forrest’s special observance day again for July 13, as have his predecessors — though Lamar Alexander as governor, apparently unaware of the statute, once hastily proclaimed a due observance day only after a reporter inquired about it.

Unofficially, Haslam proclaimed in response to reporter inquiries about Forrest’s bust sitting in the state Capitol and calls to remove it: “If I’m choosing the Tennesseans that I’m going to honor and we’re only going to honor a few … I don’t think I’d pick Nathan Bedford Forrest.”

Inquiries to a couple of members of the Legislature’s Black Caucus last week showed they, like Alexander years ago, were unaware of the statute dictating the Forrest observance, though they have strongly advocated removal of the Forrest bust that legislators see every day during session. Caucus Chair Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, said the law seems basically “celebrating” a slave trader linked to the Ku Klux Klan, a notion that most blacks find abhorrent, and she may well file a bill to repeal of the special observance statute.

Haslam had no public appearances last week — there were rumors he was on vacation at an undisclosed location — and was thus unavailable for comment on his seemingly incongruous official and unofficial positions. His communications staff, beyond confirming the public record showing the proclamation was signed, naturally stonewalled reporter inquires on the matter. They do that a lot these days. (Note: Proclamation is HERE.)

The governor will doubtless, in due course, respond unofficially to media types in ambivalent fashion. Doubtfully but conceivably, he might even officially respond by, say, making Forrest Day repeal and/or bust removal part of his next package of legislation recommended to the General Assembly.

The Forrest flap, it seems safe to predict, will also be otherwise debated and get a fair amount of overdue attention in the months ahead. If so, it will stand in refreshing contrast to almost institutionalized avoidance and/or ignorance of our official state stance on many things today that date back many years.

For an example from last week, the Department of Children’s Services discovered there was a law passed in 1987 that allows public disclosure of persons suspected — though not charged or convicted — of child abuse or neglect and decided to start using it for the first time.

For a longer-term example, our state constitution declares that ministers cannot serve as legislators and atheists cannot hold public office. Both of those constitutional provisions were declared in violation of the U.S. Constitution and unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court back in the 1970s. Both are still in the state constitution — basically because legislators and governors have no desire to go to the trouble of changing them, though they enthusiastically back politically popular “religious freedom” laws.

In 2013, the Legislature set up an “Office of the Repealer” with the stated goal of repealing obsolete, useless and unnecessary statutes. In its first annual report, the office reported receiving nine recommendations — one being for repeal of the Office of the Repealer — and let’s just say that the results were less than overwhelming.

Inertia prevails. Politicians today, fingers in the wind, are reluctant to lead in changing things approved by politicians who, in bygone days, put their fingers in the political winds. Even when those winds have changed.

Note: This is the unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.