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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A private group headed by a county commissioner and fueled by anonymous donations bought two parks from the city of Memphis at little cost this week, allowing for the swift removal of two Confederate statues that had sparked conflict for years.
Shelby County Commissioner and attorney Van Turner told a news conference Thursday that his group, Memphis Greenspace Inc., is ready for any lawsuits that arise from its deal with the city, which took months of planning to sidestep a Tennessee law that makes it tough to take down Confederate monuments on public grounds.
The law has been criticized by those who say the statues are a reminder of a time when slavery was enforced and bigotry sanctioned in the South. It has been supported by those who say removing the monuments would be like trying to erase history.
Turner said he approached the city attorney with the workaround idea, the group was incorporated in October, and its 501(c)(3) application is still pending.
But Turner said Memphis Greenspace wasn't formed just to remove the statues of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
He said he envisions more Memphis-area parks being transferred to the group so it can raise money to revitalize them. In the meantime, he said, the organization will use the donations it has received to run the two parks it bought.
Removing the statues, now kept at an undisclosed location, will help the city focus on bigger issues, Turner said.
"When we wake up tomorrow morning, we still will have issues with education, we still will have issues of poverty in this city, we still will have issues with public safety. This doesn't resolve any of that," Turner said. "What this does is move this out of the way. This is a non-issue now."
The City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to sell the two parks where the statues were located for $1,000 each and crews began working right away at Health Sciences Park to remove the Forrest statue. People cheered as the statue was lifted off its marble base and placed on a flatbed truck.
At the Fourth Bluff Park, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was later taken down.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the law lets the city sell land to a private entity, and allows the buyer to remove any items it chooses from the land. In September, the City Council passed legislation allowing the city to sell parkland to nonprofit groups for less than fair market value.
State lawmakers and others who want to preserve the monuments claim the city's actions are illegal.
"They are willfully violating the Heritage Preservation act; the City has broken state law," James Patterson, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Tennessee division, wrote on Facebook. "This has been a well-organized, behind the scenes plan by the city. They deliberately did this after hours to prevent action on our part."
House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin, and Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, said they will work with the House speaker, comptroller and other stakeholders to investigate.
"The Tennessee Historical Commission has already voted to deny the city's application to remove these statues and this decision in Shelby County, at a minimum, completely violates both the spirit and intent of state law in protecting Tennessee history," Casada and Williams said in a statement.
An increasing number of cities have tried to remove Confederate monuments after the racially motivated massacre of nine people at a black church in South Carolina in 2015 and a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year.
Forrest was a slave trader, Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader who became influential in the growth of Memphis after the Civil War. His body and that of his wife are buried beneath his statue.
On Thursday, Turner said the nonprofit is willing to discuss a transfer of the Forrest and Davis statues, possibly for a Civil War memorial.
The group also might be able to move the remains of Forrest and his wife back to a cemetery where they once were kept, but only if the family wants to do so, he said.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com