Memphis has made some monumental decisions and because of it, it’s on the leading edge of a movement.

At a time when most cities are still coming to grips with whether their monuments skew their real histories, our community took a forceful step forward to correct the imbalance here, and unlike some cities, Memphis did more than the minimum.

Rather, it took steps to address the problem in a way that future generations would have an accurate representation of our civic values, as reflected in our monuments, and the people who represented those values best.  

The momentum for the monuments movement in many cities was sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in May, 2020.  After his killing, about 170 monuments – less than half of one percent of all monuments – were taken down – 80% by municipalities and the rest by demonstrators. 

However, the Memphis monument movement was well under way.

A Monumental Milestone

The city not only had removed its Confederate monuments but had several projects under way that are now realities and soon, in the reimagined Tom Lee Park, there will be a major new monument by an internationally known artist as part of the Mellon Foundation’s two-year-old, $250 million program to bring greater diversity into the U.S. inventory of statues, memorials, and monuments.

Tom Lee Park was one of the first recipients of a Mellon Foundation grant from the program, and it will fund sculptures in the park by Theaster Gates, who has been described by New York Times as “a figure of heroic dimensions” and by Tate London as “one of the world’s most influential living artists.”

His installation in Memphis, “A Monument to Listening,” will be a contemplative work inspired by the heroism and courage of Tom Lee and a source of reflection and conversation for park visitors.  The sculpture will be located in a landscaped section of the new park, near where the existing Tom Lee sculpture stands. It will comprise two plazas built of stone and brick, one called “Point of Reflection” and the other “Point of Redemption.” 

As a result of his international stature, the location of his work, and its importance in embodying the park (and the city’s) values of equity, diversity, and opportunity, it is destined to be the watershed moment in Memphis’ monument campaign.  

A Big Step Toward Accuracy

The heightened awareness about monuments began in 2013 with the renaming of three parks named to honor the Confederacy, fueling demands to remove the white nationalist statues that were erected to intimidate African Americans in Memphis.  The monument for Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest was taken down December 20, 2017, and the monument of President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis met the same fate shortly thereafter.

The statue of slave trader Forrest was built in 1905 – when lynchings were still taking place in Shelby County – as a tribute to the “lost cause” which was celebrated with frequent Confederate reunions in Memphis.

The Jefferson statue was added by the city’s white power structure in 1964 as a sign of their resistance to the civil rights movement.  Three months before the statue dedication, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and 10 days after the erection, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fortunately, Memphis didn’t stop at removing the Confederacy from its public spaces.  It also set out to replace them with statues and monuments that more accurately reflected the values of Memphis and its real heroes.

The New Monuments

The ten-ton I Have Been to the Mountaintop, a major work by sculptor Richard Hunt, has been largely ignored since it was installed in 1977, but finally, it is the centerpiece of a new pocket park at Second Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard called Dr. Martin Luther King Reflection Park.  It was dedicated April 5, 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the murder of the civil rights giant.

A few blocks east of the park adjacent to Clayborn Temple is a new monument designed by Cliff Garten, I Am A Man Plaza.  It honors the sanitation workers whose strike brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968, and it was also dedicated on April 5, 2018.

The central sculpture is comprised of 15’ tall stainless steel letters forming the iconic phrase I AM A MAN. Quotes and speeches from prominent civil rights leaders are included in various components of the built environment supporting the sculpture, as well as on the letters themselves. The central I AM A MAN letters are reflective, urging viewers to see themselves as part of the structure, and therefore, part of the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Seven months ago, a life-sized statue of journalist, civil rights campaigner, and national treasure Ida B. Wells was dedicated at Beale and Fourth Streets, adjacent to the site of her “The Free Speech and Headlight” newspaper.  The absence of a monument for the national hero was an unforgivable omission that has finally been rectified. 

The southeast corner of the intersection features more than just the statue. There is a metal tree, “The Tree of Strange Fruit,” in memory of Wells’ three friends who were lynched in 1892 and led to her documenting lynchings.  Eventually, she put her life at risk and was forced by white racists to leave Memphis.

A few months ago, the Memphis Suffrage Monument was installed behind the University of Memphis Law School and overlooks the Mississippi River.  It features six busts sculpted by Alan LeQuire with a 70-foot long series of nine foot tall wall panels representing Memphians who led the suffrage movement and other glass ceiling breakers in local history from 1918-2019.  The installation includes etched glass portraits featuring biographies of each suffrage leader and women whose careers were made possible as a result.

Correcting The Balance

With these new monuments, Memphis became a national leader in correcting the imbalance in public tributes to historical figures that concentrated on white men.  As Mellon Foundation pointed out in its groundbreaking study, it was an imbalance national in its dimension.

The National Monument Audit catalogued 50,000 monuments scattered across the U.S. and researched nearly half a million federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial records to understand the origins and backgrounds of the monuments.

The audit showed that American memorials were regularly connected to violent events.  For example, there were nearly 6,000 monuments connected to the Civil War, but only nine mention the hopeful Reconstruction Era that followed it. 

Not a single monument recalls any of the 34 massacres of African Americans recorded during those revolutionary years for Black rights which was undone by a president and elected officials sympathetic to the Confederacy. 

Also, nearly 1,000 memorials have been erected since 1930 in honor of white settlers without mention of massacres, land grabs, and treatment of Native Americans. 

A Watershed Program

The Mellon Foundation’s report said: “The story of the United States as told by our current monument landscape misrepresents our history.  Where inequalities and injustices exist, monuments often perpetuate them.”

To combat this problem, the Mellon Foundation is spending a quarter of a billion dollars, an unprecedented amount, to fund The Monuments Project which is aimed at “reimagining and rebuilding commemorative spaces that celebrate and affirm the historical contributions of the many diverse communities that make up the United States.”

The Theaster Gates project for Tom Lee Park is a $1.4 million “signature initiative” of the Foundation and will be completed next year. It does not affect the existing David Allen Clark statue of Tom Lee that was erected in 2006 and the new park’s layout is designed to make it the focal point. “Unlike when most Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, this moment in time gives us an opportunity to be intentional about how to create public spaces and public art that brings people together,” the foundation said.


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