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Take ‘Em Down 901: The Kairos of Progressive Activism During a National Rise of Racist Rhetoric

Scene report by
Angela L. Morris

On the evening of December 20, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee, night crew construction workers fastened yellow straps from a mobile crane around the equestrian statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. At precisely 9:01 pm—a homage to Memphis’s area code, 901—the crane removed the statue from its concrete pedestal on Union Avenue, where it had presided, facing south, for more than a century (see fig. 1). Cheers from the large crowd who gathered in celebration that cold Wednesday evening drowned the noise of the machinery. Camera flashes and video spotlights pierced the night sky as the media documented the event and interviewed members of Take ‘Em Down 901, the grassroots organization who six-months earlier began protesting for the statue’s removal.

Figure 1. A construction crew removes the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Memphis.

The Nathan Bedford Forrest Equestrian statue had been erected in what was then called Forrest Park in 1905, twenty-eight years after Forrest’s death and forty years after the Civil War ended. The turn of the 20th century saw not only the monument’s unveiling but also strict implementation of Jim Crow laws in the predominantly African American community of Memphis. Fundraising efforts for the statue throughout the South centered around a narrative commemorating the valor and heroism of the native Tennessean and omitted the fact that Forrest was an active member of the slave trade and the inaugural Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (“History of the Forrest Equestrian Monument,” n.d., para. 1). While throughout the 20th and 21st century Forrest’s leadership in the infamous hate group was well-known—especially among white supremacists, citizens of Memphis, and local legislators—it was his position as lieutenant general of the Confederate Army that enabled his statue protection from removal by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013 and 2016 (Wilson, 2018, p. 4).

In an effort to alleviate part of the tribute paid towards the Klansman born nearly 230 miles away in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, the Memphis City Council motioned to rename the city-owned Forest Park the Health Sciences Park in 2013. The motion went through but not without massive protests from the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the KKK, an assemblage that gained national attention (Castoro, 2013). While many viewed the park’s renaming as a step in the right direction, many more recognized the statue itself as a symbol of hatred, prejudice, and oppression that needed to come down (Baker, 2013). Thus, in June 2017, a grassroots effort to fight for the removal of the Forrest Equestrian Memorial formed in Memphis under the tagline Take ‘Em Down 901 (Herrington, 2017, par. 14). Take ‘Em Down 901’s rhetoric tapped into the national kairos surrounding the Unite the Right rally in the summer of 2017 at a local level in order to successfully advocate for the statue’s removal. Relying on my own observation of a Take ‘Em Down 901 rally that I attended on August 19, 2017, this scene report considers how the grassroots organization’s rhetoric connected with the national sentiment against the rise in mainstream white nationalism following the recent presidential election. I examine how Take ‘Em Down 901 situated its own resistance against this supremacist narrative within Memphis’s specific rhetorical situation of housing confederate monuments in order to host their most successful demonstration.

Understanding the local kairos surrounding Take ‘Em Down 901

James Kinneavy reintroduced the term kairos into rhetorical lexis with his 1986 essay “Kairos: A neglected concept in classic rhetoric,” providing the provisional definition: “right or opportune time to do something, or right measure in doing something” (p. 80). The following year, James S. Baulim (1987) attempted to provide more nuance to the term as “a rhetoric that recognizes the contingent nature of reality and the way man [sic] constitutes his world through language” (p. 181). In 1988, Michael Carter extended his research of kairos beyond the “opportune moments, right measure, and appropriateness” (p. 105) to incorporate its Sophistic origins and its dualistic nature of encompassing both principles of conflict and resolution, a “principle upon which the rhetor and his audience could, in a relativistic world, arrive at a probable judgement” (p. 105). All three scholars stood by the word’s grounding in ethics and its inconstant nature over which people hold no control, as did subsequent scholars who worked to position kairos within Aristotelian and Isocratean ideology (Kinneavy & Eskin, 2000; Harker, 2007).  In 2007, Libby Miles reaffirmed, “Kairos tends to be something you notice and act upon, when the moment is right (initiation), its presence something to be recognized and counted for (invention). Kairos thus is part of the rhetorical situation, but one over which we have no control” (p. 746). However, Miles (2007) sought to further extend how kairos shapes the construction of our realities, “We often lay the foundation for what will someday become somebody else’s kairotic moment. A truly collective scholarly community can actively help build the conditions for a kairotic moment in someone else’s time and space” (p. 746). This scene report aligns with Miles’ (2007) understanding of kairos, and it further demonstrates that while no single person could predict nor control the events that occurred in August 2017, the desire to reshape the narrative that surrounds confederate statues led communities into specific rhetorical situations—a specific, national kairotic moment—that, when capitalized on appropriately, helped fuel a local fight.

Members of Take ‘Em Down 901 believed the summer of 2017 to be the opportune time to reframe the narrative of valor surrounding the Forrest statue at a local and state level and demand its removal. In less than a year, Memphis was due to host MLK50—a national celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. in honor of the 50th anniversary of his assassination outside Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel. Such an anniversary spurred conversation throughout the city regarding whether or not King’s dream had been realized in this predominantly African American community marked with the highest poverty rate of any metropolitan area in the United States, a poor public education system, and police violence. Black Lives Matter protests in Memphis throughout the previous year, including one that shut down a section of the third largest interstate in America, I-40, questioned the prevalence of current systemic oppression. With such oppression rarely taking concrete form, the reality that the city housed an effigy memorializing a KKK Grand Wizard became the symbol of how various realities in Memphis greatly contradicted the MLK50 image the city sought to project—one of progress and equality.

Even though the timing to demand the removal of this statue seemed right, with MLK50 just around the corner, members of Take ‘Em Down 901 knew they still had to work to reframe the views of those at a legislative level who saw Forrest as simply a heroic son of the South. As Charles J. Stewart (1980) addressed in “A Functional Approach to the Rhetoric of Social Movements,” social movements “must alter the ways audiences perceive the past, the present, and the future to convince them that an intolerable situation exists and that it warrants urgent action” (p. 302). In mobilizing professors of rhetoric, pastors of local churches, concerned citizens, and trained activists, Take ‘Em Down 901 asked the city and state to consider the national attention Memphis would receive with MLK50 the following year and how the oppressive symbolism alive in the Forrest statue squared with that at present and in the future. However, reconstructing competing historical narratives regarding the statue as a celebration of the state’s honorable past proved to be slightly more difficult, with the Pew Research Center revealing in 2011 that majority of Americans believe the Civil War was simply fought over states’ rights rather than those state’s wanting the immoral right to own another human being (“What caused the Civil War”). Furthermore, MLK50 was, for some reason, not kairotic enough to force the true confederate narrative to be revealed throughout Memphis and Tennessee’s legislative arms.

Following David Snow’s ideas of frame amplification, which “underscores linkages between preexisting values or beliefs in the population and a movement’s goals” (Buechler, 2011, p. 146), Take ‘Em Down 901 began hosting weekly rallies starting in June 2017 at the site of the statue. These rallies highlighted the contradiction between Memphis’ MLK50 narrative of progress and equality and housing a statue that celebrates a past of endorsed slavery and a person who fought the majority of his life to hold African Americans in an inferior status. While attempting to harness the kairos of MLK50, Take ‘Em Down 901 also made conscious efforts to host protests at the statue itself rather than in front of legislative buildings. As Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook (2011) discuss in their essay “Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest,” geographic locations, buildings, and memorials wield their own rhetorical performance. Therefore, social movements—often relying on the “rhetoricity of places themselves”—hold events or protests at a specific site “to create temporary fissures in the dominant meanings of places” (p. 257). These weekly rallies not only called for the statue’s removal and for the reframing of public opinion of a man who fought for slavery, they also worked to show how the park could become a site of celebration for overcoming oppression. While these assemblages worked to temporarily reconstruct the pre-existing rhetoric of the park, as defined by Endres and Senda-Cook (2011), from one that lauded the oppression of African Americans to one that empowered them, the rallies seemed to do little to sway the Memphis City Council through the kairos of MLK50.  

The national kairotic moment of white nationalism and resistance

Two and half months into the Take ‘Em Down 901 movement, which had garnered only sparse local attention, an event in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017 captivated a national audience. Hundreds of white nationalists, alt-righters, and neo-Nazis from across the nation, led by Jason Kessler under the slogan Unite the Right, descended upon the University of Virginia in protest against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The rally goers marched on campus with Tiki torches in hand—“a symbolic gathering meant to evoke similar marches of Hitler Youth and other ultraright nationalist organizations of the past century” (Heim, 2017, par. 1). They chanted, “Blood and soil!”, “You will not replace us!”, “Jews will not replace us!”, and “White Lives Matter!” (Heim, 2017, par. 10-2), and some of their body rhetoric included the Nazi salute. Some of those interviewed, including current leader of the KKK, David Duke, hailed the rally as a materialization of Trump’s vision (Nelson, 2017, par. 1). The evening ended with a clash between rally goers and student counter-protesters. The next morning, however, the Unite the Right Rally reconvened at Emancipation Park. Participants traded their Tiki torches for Confederate flags and nationalist banners. Counter-protesters multiplied from the previous night, and violence quickly broke out, ending with the death of thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, who was run over by a car driven by a supporter of Unite the Right. The event and tragedy occupied the headlines of every national media source, as did Trump’s condemnation of the “many sides” of the protests (Merica, 2017, par. 2).

Enraged by the demonstration of white supremacy in Charlottesville and the murder of Heyer, Take ‘Em Down 901 capitalized on the national kairos of resistance to this white nationalist narrative and mobilized to hold “Rally for Removal! Solidarity with Charlottesville!” at the base of the Forrest statue exactly one week after the events in Virginia. While scholars like Baulim (1987) and Carter (1988) contended that the birth of kairos is out of man’s control and is something one must simply notice and act upon, the events in Charlottesville mirror Miles’ (2007) belief that others “lay the foundation for what will someday become somebody else’s kairotic moment… in someone’s time and place” (p. 749). The time and place became Memphis, Tennessee, seven days later. Previously, Take ‘Em Down 901’s rhetoric failed to sway the city council due to a lack of concrete evidence that such statues were less about Southern pride than white nationalism; Charlottesville gave Memphis’ grassroots organization both a new kairotic moment and a contemporary villain.

Within this opportune situation, Memphis activists knew they needed to deploy the right measures of rhetoric to ensure their message paralleled the national kairos surrounding Virginia. By 3:30 pm, August 19, hundreds of locals gathered at the Health Sciences Park with signs that read “Fight Terrorism in America First,” “Racism Can’t Stand,” “End White Supremacy,” and “I’m NOT Confused, Racism Is Hate,” mingling references to the previous week’s dialogue with the current standing of the Forrest statue. Just as counter-protestors in Charlottesville had chanted “Whose Streets? Our Streets?” before a Dodge Challenger plowed through the crowd, Memphis protestors warmed up with “Whose City? Our City! Whose Park? Our Park!”, using rhetorical parallelism to further connect local needs to the national kairos. They also chanted “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” to blend the nationally reported comments of the preceding week with the rhetoric of the Forrest statue and previous KKK assemblies held in the statue’s honor in 2013 when the park was first renamed.

As the chants gained momentum, Tami Sawyer, one of the protest organizers, grabbed a megaphone and demanded the City of Memphis and/or State of Tennessee act to remove such statues, such symbols of hatred and oppression. Her charge was followed by cheers and speeches from local professors addressing the rhetoric of the emblem, clergy discussing the power of material symbols in both contemporary contexts and biblical references, and local Black Lives Matter activists sharing testimonials of personal encounters with racism. While these measures mirrored previous gatherings at the park—signs, chants, speeches, different rhetoric arose in response to Charlottesville. As the speeches came towards an end, protestors climbed atop the statue’s pedestal and attempted to cover the statue with a tarp that read, “Take ‘Em Down 901” (see the video below). Police officers posited at the periphery of the gathering quickly moved towards the center, pulling down the tarp and the protestors who attempted to cover the statue.

The speaker at the megaphone, a leader from the Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter, retorted to the elevated level of police presence at the center of the rally with a personal narrative regarding how it had taken the police 45 minutes to respond to a call when her daughter was kidnapped in North Memphis, yet only seconds to respond to the threat of the statue being covered. This improvisational story galvanized the large crowd to tightly surround the statue and link arms, blocking the police from the edifice as members attempted to cover the statue again. The move was met by police pushing through people and throwing those who attempted to cover the statue to the ground (see fig. 2). The present media, officials of MLK50, and individuals with cell phones documented the arrests. They caught images of officer’s elbowing through women, dragging people, and manhandling any who sat or stood in refusal of arrest. Several crowd members combined embodied rhetoric with chants, raising their hands while saying “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” nodding to the all-too-familiar interactions between African Americans and police. While several arrests eventually forced the large crowd to dissipate from the park and form another protest at the jail, the images and videos produced at the rally spread throughout the national media, evoking Charlottesville’s kairos more than 700 hundred miles away in the southwest tip of Tennessee.

Figure 2. Police pushed through people and threw those who attempted to cover the statue to the ground.

With the national coverage of local citizens met by police violence when calling on the City of Memphis to remove the statue, the city council seemed pinned. Because the Memphis City Council was forbidden by state law to remove the statue, they began drafting specific ordinances in the week following the protest. Memphis City Council held their first reading of Memphis City Council Ordinance #5658 on August 22. The ordinance “provides for selling city property to a non-profit for nominal value” (Wilson, 2018, p. 5). Major Strickland signed the ordinance into effect October 19, 2017. Two days prior, on October 17, the Memphis City Council held their first reading of Ordinance #5665, which states “relative to the immediate removal of the Forrest Equestrian Statue…and other similar property from City owned property” (p. 5). On December 15, Mayor Strickland and the non-profit Memphis Greenspace, Inc., signed documents “related to the sale of the parks contingent on the Memphis City Council’s approval of Ordinance #5665” (p. 5). The sale of the Health Sciences park for $1,000 was approved five days later. On that evening, December 20, Memphis Greenspace, Inc., now owning Health Sciences Park as their private property, legally removed the Nathan Forrest Equestrian statue from its base.

This success lays largely on the shoulders of Take ‘Em Down 901’s strategy to harness the national kairos of Charlottesville for their own purpose. By connecting their struggle to the tragic events in Virginia and capitalizing on the national conversation shaped by many others, Take ‘Em Down 901 too garnered national attention and forced the city council to act. While the state of Tennessee and local chapters of the Sons of Confederacy still fight on behalf of Confederate statues, Memphis rid this monument to oppression from its prominent display in their community, thus demonstrating both how individuals lay the foundation for someone’s kairotic moment and how a national kairotic moment can be successfully utilized at a local level.


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Author Bio

Angela Morris (she/her/hers) is a graduate student of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communications at the University of Memphis. As a TA at U of M, she teaches courses in first-year writing and literary heritage. Her research interests include social justice rhetoric and the impact of race and class in first-year writing.

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