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Now that Memphis’ Confederate statues have been removed, Greenspace Inc.’s director Van Turner Jr. says it can now begin to create non-oppressive recreational spaces for all Memphians.
Tonyaa Weathersbee/The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS — The city of Memphis had the legal right to sell two parks to a nonprofit that then removed their Confederate monuments, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle also lifted an injunction preventing the nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace Inc., from finding a new home for the statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, President Jefferson Davis and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes. 

However, Lyle also temporarily stayed the order, giving the plaintiff, the Sons of Confederate Veterans Nathan Bedford Forrest Camp 215, time to appeal and seek a new injunction.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland tweeted: “This ruling reaffirms what we’ve said from the start: Everything was handled in a lawful manner.”

More: How Memphis took down its Confederate statues

More: As Richmond’s Confederate statues go, so might the South’s

Tami Sawyer, who helped lead the grassroots TakeEmDown901 movement against the statues, said the ruling was a significant victory in a generations-long fight against “structures of hatred.”

“You lost the Civil War, and you just lost this one, too,” Sawyer said. “It’s time to move on. It’s even more of a lost cause to keep on fighting us on these statues.”

The City Council in December approved the sale of Health Sciences Park and Fourth Bluff Park to Memphis Greenspace, which was formed by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, for $1,000 each. Within hours, the nonprofit removed the statues — including Forrest’s statue from its pedestal atop his grave — and stored them locally.

Lyle rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans argument that Greenspace was a “sham” set up by the city for the sole purpose of circumventing the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which requires the Tennessee Historical Commission to approve the removal of any statues from public property.

“The wording of the law, the 2016 Act, does not apply to private property,” she said in her ruling. “Yet, the Statues were located on and were removed from private property. Thus, this Court is not empowered to issue an injunction concerning the Statues, and it must dissolve the temporary restraining order.”

The ruling means Memphis Greenspace can begin planning for the future of the statues, moving them to an appropriate place as opposed to a public park, Turner said.

“I think that allows us to really get serious about transferring the statues to any number of Civil War memorial parks or museums,” he said.

Lee Millar, a local spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, wouldn’t say whether the organization would file an appeal. He cryptically added, declining to elaborate, that an appeal wasn’t the “only avenue open to us.”

“The fight is certainly not over,” he said.

The city tried unsuccessfully for more than a year to obtain a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to take down the statues through the process laid out under the state’s historic preservation law. After being rejected by the commission, and knowing the 50th anniversary commemoration of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in Memphis was approaching, Strickland decided to sell the parks and their statues.

Follow Ryan Poe on Twitter: @ryanpoe

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