A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest sits on a concrete pedestal at a park named after the confederate cavalryman in Memphis Tenn. on Feb. 6, 2013.
Photo by Adrian Sainz/AP

Why Tennessee’s gov signed a proclamation honoring early KKK leader

Every January in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, state law recognizes two holidays on the same day: one recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King, the other recognizing Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

As the Tennessean reported the other day, their neighbors in the Volunteer State have a related issue of concern.

Gov. Bill Lee has proclaimed Saturday as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, a day of observation to honor the former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader whose bust is on display in the state Capitol.

Per state law, the Tennessee governor is tasked with issuing proclamations for six separate days of special observation, three of which, including the July 13 Forrest Day, pertain to the Confederacy.

Lee – and governors who have come before him – are also required by state law to proclaim Jan. 19 as Robert E. Lee Day, honoring the commander of the Confederate Army, as well as June 3 Confederate Decoration Day, otherwise known as Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The state’s first-year Republican governor told reporters on Thursday, “I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law.”

At first blush, the first part of that response may seem like a decent response – it’s tough to blame a governor for following state law – but it’s that second part that stands out.

Tennessee could, for example, change state law and end Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), hardly a champion of progressive values, has encouraged state officials to do exactly that. Indeed, Tennessee Democrats have already tried.

But those efforts have come up short, and as the Tennessean’s report added, Gov. Bill Lee wouldn’t say last week “whether he believed state law should be changed to no longer require the governor to issue such proclamations or whether he had reservations about doing so.”

To change state laws like these takes leadership and a little political courage. Tennessee’s state government, dominated by Republicans, may be lacking in both.