It would have been easy for Grizzlies coach David Fizdale to stay silent.
But Fizdale didn’t stick to sports.
He’s a basketball coach, in his first year in Memphis, a city with a tortured racial history, culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. (The motel is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.) But King’s murder was not the beginning of Black Memphis’ anguish; it was simply the most public manifestation of horrors more than a century in the making, dating back to race-fueled riots in the city in 1868 that ultimately claimed both black and white lives, and through an explosive response to the growing influence of a burgeoning black middle class in the city early in the 20th century.
So Fizdale spoke out, and continues to speak out, against the presence of two statues in the city -- of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who amassed a personal fortune in the slave trade before the Civil War before becoming a general in the Confederate army, an early scion of post-Civil War Memphis and one of the first members of the Ku Klux Klan, rising to a position of authority in that odious organization.
I’m not even saying tear them up and melt them down. Put them in their proper context in history. Their proper context is in a civil rights museum, where you could put them in context and talk about how awful they were.
And Fizdale has lent his name to the call, years in the making by many residents in the city, in the midst of a national reexamining of the presence of such statues in other cities -- including Charlottesville, Va. -- that the statues be removed from their current respective places near downtown Memphis.
“My agenda is simple -- I want those things out of our city, out of public view,” Fizdale said by phone Saturday.
“I’m not even saying tear them up and melt them down,” he said. “Put them in their proper context in history. Their proper context is in a civil rights museum, where you could put them in context and talk about how awful they were. I just feel our citizens should not have to see that involuntarily. You have Sun Studios (where Elvis Presley and other early rock n’ rollers cut their records) on one side of the (Health Services) Park and the University of Tennessee Medical School on the other side. How is that a good look, with people eating their lunches down there and people come down to that area to sightsee?”
The Davis statue, built in 1964, is in what is now known as Mississippi River Park, near the popular tourist attraction Mud Island. The park was renamed in 2013. It used to be called Jefferson Davis Park.
The Forrest statue, built in 1905, is in what is now known as Health Services Park; Forrest’s remains, along with his wife’s, are interned there. This park was also renamed in 2013; it used to be called Forrest Park.
More than 4,500 people signed petitions last month, at the behest of a local advocacy group known as Take Em Down 901, demanding the immediate removal of the respective statues. The petitions were delivered to the Memphis City Council. The Council has already voted once, in 2015, to remove the statues, but that vote was symbolic; it does not have the authority to do so.
Jurisdiction over the statues is with the Tennessee Historical Commission, and the state’s legislature further made removal of statues and other artifacts difficult with the 2013 (now, 2016) “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act”, which orders that “no statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, or plaque which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of a military conflict that is identified in a list of conflicts in which the U.S. has participated and is located on public property, may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed…”
However, public sentiment seems to be coalescing toward removing the statues. The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce announced last month it would support removal, and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is also in favor, though he does not support Take Em Down 901’s demands that the city remove the statues immediately.
The Memphis City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to approve removal of the statues. If it votes to approve, it will have to seek a waiver from the Historical Commission, which is set to meet again in October. However, the Commission may not actually vote on the question of removal until next year. The Historical Commission rejected the Council’s vote to remove the statues in 2015, keeping the statues in their current places.
Fizdale first spoke out to Wendi Thomas, a former columnist with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, who launched MLK50: Justice Through Journalism -- an online journalism project about economic inequality in the city -- last April. In a video published on the website last month, Fizdale made his feelings plain about the Davis and Forrest statues.
And Fizdale singled out Memphis’ white population to stand up and join his campaign.
“Because until this becomes absolutely unacceptable to you, it’ll continue,” Fizdale told Thomas. “And so we need everybody to get involved right now. I know my wife and I, we’ll definitely be right there in the trenches, on the front line, spreading peace and love and trying to build real communities with people from all walks of life that are facing the exact same problems.”
Fizdale has since taken to social media; his wife, Natasha, posted pictures of him on her Twitter page in front of the statues wearing t-shirts that read “Honor King -- End Racism” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Natasha Fizdale had already jumped into community activism, hosting the Girls’ Summit at FedEx Forum last April, inviting 300 middle and high school girls to meet stars like future Hall of Famer Tina Thompson -- a childhood friend of David Fizdale -- along with Swin Cash and Allison Feaster, along with 1996 Olympic gold medal winner Rochelle Stevens, a Memphis resident. The two-day summit was timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.
“We’re a family of action,” David Fizdale said Saturday. “We’re constantly going to be in the forefront of action in our community.”
Fizdale came to know about the statues soon after he took the Grizzlies’ job last year. After Charlottesville, where Nazis and other white sympathizers marched through the streets of that city to protest the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue -- and where an alleged neo-Nazi was charged with the second-degree murder of Heather Heyer, a counter-demonstrater, by running her over with his car -- Fizdale wanted to speak out about the Davis and Forrest statues in Memphis.
“When it’s left up to the state and the state puts it in the hands of a committee who thinks they’re preserving history without the thought of humanity, just thinking about their common man and what they’ve experienced … are there statues of Hitler all throughout Germany?,” Fizdale asked. “No. You’re not going to do that to your citizens. We’ve got a huge medical community through here that we’re really proud of that’s world renowned, like St. Jude’s (Children’s Research Hospital). There’s big time stuff here where these statues sit. It’s just an awful look for our city. You add to that that Dr. King was assassinated here, and I feel like (the statues are) honoring people, whether they did it personally or not, the people that killed him.”
Fizdale’s stance on the statues comes from even deeper roots than you’d figure at first glance -- his father was white, and Fizdale’s white grandparents met during World War II.
I want people to be uncomfortable. Our owner (Robert Pera), the owner of FedEx, our white owners of all the companies in the city, they’re the ones who have to step up and clean this out of our city. Money talks.
“That’s the craziest part,” Fizdale said. “I’m a mixed guy. My white grandparents served in the military. That’s where they met. You think about that, and now we’ve got neo-Nazis in the street, running over a white woman who’s standing up for what’s right. And I think of my (black) grandfather and his brothers who fled Jim Crow and went to L.A. to try and get a better life.”
No one from the team has asked Fizdale to tone it down.
“I think they support me for the most part,” he said. “Obviously, it’s edgy. It makes people uncomfortable. But that’s good. I want people to be uncomfortable. Our owner (Robert Pera), the owner of FedEx, our white owners of all the companies in the city, they’re the ones who have to step up and clean this out of our city. Money talks. What says more than people stepping up and saying ‘we’re not going to have this in our city?’ People have stepped up and bought tickets and supported them. I’m asking them to support us.”
Everyone, of course, does not agree with his stance in Memphis.
“I posed it to an older white woman who’s a friend of mine,” he said. “She said ‘I understand but I don’t; can you help me?’ I said sure. I told her to close her eyes. I said, ‘picture your mother or great grandmother. Imagine there were black men who raped her, and killed other people in your family, and enslaved those people. And now, all these generations later, you’ve been given certain rights and you are free to do what you want. And they’ve got a statue of this big, black man in your city, who did that to your relatives. How would you feel about that?’ And she opened her eyes and said ‘oh, my God, I get it.’ ”
But the neighborhoods have a different view.
“I get people screaming at me on the street, they got my back, way to represent,” Fizdale said. “Memphis don’t bluff. It’s a tight knit community. I know I may be risking it with some that aren’t in the fan base, but I don’t really care. I’ve tried to make it clear why I think it’s important to the city. I know I’ve talked about what this does to black people in the city, but it’s really a slap in the face to the white community that doesn’t believe in that stuff. For them to know that their neighbors are deeply wounded by it, that’s not good for them either.”
To the “whataboutists” -- those who sometimes reflexively ask, ‘what about black on black crime? What about Chicago? What are you doing about that?’ -- Fizdale takes umbrage. His maternal grandfather, Robert Hamilton, a deacon in his church in South Central L.A., where Fizdale grew up, who’d lived there for decades, was murdered in 1993 by black kids who robbed him in front of his house, and shot him after he refused to let them in; his daughter, her husband and their kids were still inside. And Fizdale lost more than a few other friends and acquaintances to gun violence growing up.
“We’re deep into those issues,” Fizdale said. “When it comes to women’s rights and domestic violence issues that plague our community, we’re deep into that stuff. My wife did the Girls’ Summit. You know I’ve talked about my grandfather getting killed by black-on-black crime. But what creates those conditions?”
To that end, he has started working with Urban Farms Memphis, a part of the Memphis Tilth program that seeks to create access to sustainable healthy foods grown locally, through student and volunteer engagement, to help reduce the levels of obesity, diabetes and other maladies that plague communities of color and low-income areas.
He knows that some -- many -- may disagree with his view about the statues. But he will not back up once the season starts.
“Sixty three to 65 percent of our city is black,” he said. “They have to see it all the time ... this is for our people and our city. And my conscience. I don’t want to wake up when I’m 70 and have my kids say ‘what did you do when all this stuff happened?’ I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history ...
“I know there are people who say ‘just coach,’ ” he says. “... I don’t hear them.”
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