Gov. Bill Lee signs proclamation

Gov. Bill Lee signs proclamation

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has proclaimed Saturday as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in the state, a day of observation to honor the former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader whose bust is on display in the state Capitol.

Per state law, the Tennessee governor is tasked with issuing proclamations for six separate days of special observation, three of which, including the July 13 Forrest Day, pertain to the Confederacy.

Lee — and governors who have come before him — are also required by state law to proclaim Jan. 19 as Robert E. Lee Day, honoring the commander of the Confederate Army, as well as June 3 Confederate Decoration Day, otherwise known as Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” Lee said Thursday.

He declined to say whether he believed state law should be changed to no longer require the governor to issue such proclamations or whether he had reservations about doing so.

A previous effort by Democrats in the state to do so was unsuccessful.

“I haven’t even looked at that law, other than knowing I needed to comply with it, so that’s what I did,” Lee said. “When we look at the law, then we’ll see.”

Lee signed the proclamation Wednesday.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Day used to be legal holiday in Tennessee

The statute instructs the Tennessee governor to proclaim those three days of special observation, along with Abraham Lincoln Day on Feb. 12, Andrew Jackson Day on March 15 and Veterans Day on Nov. 11, and to “invite the people of this state to observe the days in schools, churches, and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of such dates.”

In the Forrest proclamation, identical to the one issued each year by former Gov. Bill Haslam, Forrest is described only as a “recognized military figure in American history and a native Tennessean.”

The text reads that the governor encourages “all citizens to join (him) in this worthy observance.”

Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Decoration Day and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day have been special days of observation in the state since 1969.

Before that, they were legal holidays, legislative librarian Eddie Weeks said.

Forrest Day first became a holiday in 1921, the 100th anniversary of his birth; Robert E. Lee Day began in 1917, though it was initially referred to only as “the nineteenth day of January,” and Confederate Decoration Day was first observed as a legal holiday in the state in 1903, according to Weeks.

During his campaign for governor and in his first weeks in office, Lee maintained that he was opposed to removing the Forrest bust from its current location outside the Senate and House chambers in the state Capitol, explaining he believes it would be “a mistake to whitewash history.”

Lee previously dismissed questions about whether the state should provide additional context around the bust, saying he would instead focus on diminishing racial conflict in other ways.

Weeks later, Lee told reporters he was now open to adding historical context to the bust, though no action has been taken to do so.

Lee earlier this year said he regretted participating in “Old South” parties at Auburn University nearly four decades ago as part of Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity that lists Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.”

The governor, a college student at the time, was also pictured in an Auburn yearbook dressed in a Confederate Army uniform, a common practice for members of the fraternity at the time.

“I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that participating in that was insensitive and I’ve come to regret it,” Lee said in February.

Reach Natalie Allison at Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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