As workers began the process of removing the remains of a 19th century Ku Klux Klan leader and his wife from a park in Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday, June 1, a man unhappy with the removal of the tomb staged a demonstration in protest alongside other workers who were a part of a construction crew.
The man who was a part of the construction crew at Health Sciences Park repeatedly interrupted Shelby County commissioner Tami Sawyer as she spoke to members of the press. As he did so, she attempted to shut down his intrusive singing and flag-waving.
“Dixie is dead,” said Sawyer, who had pushed for the removal of the tomb.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the nonprofit Memphis Greenspace, which owns the park, agreed out of court last year that the remains of former slave trader, Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest would be removed from the park.
The bodies of the Confederate general and his wife will be permanently relocated to a museum after the location of the tomb remained a point of contention in Memphis and Shelby County for years.
“I think this is symbolic of where we are heading as a country, as a nation, that we can be united from many,” said Van Turner, president of Memphis Greenspace, adding that he thinks the agreement is a “win-win scenario for everyone.”
Statues of Forrest and former Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis had been removed from the park in 2017, and as per the terms of the agreement, the Sons of Confederate Veterans will also take possession of the other Civil War-related statues in the park. The statues in the park had previously been the target of vandalism.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a suit against the City of Memphis and Memphis Greenspace over the removal of the statues of Forrest and Davis, but the suit was dropped when the agreement was reached last year.
Some workers, hired by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, dumped bricks on what remained of a Black Lives Matter mural that was painted on the ground a year ago as the tomb was removed on Tuesday.
As Sawyer spoke to the press about the removal of the statue, a man who identified himself as George “K-Rack” began singing “Dixie,” a song that pays homage to the South, while walking back and forth waving a Confederate flag.
Sawyer continued on with her comments to the press. “He’s gonna stand behind me and sing ‘Dixie Land’ and I just told ya’ll that my ancestors picked cotton. I’m not making this up…While his ancestors beat and raped my ancestors. And guess what? Dixie is dead!” Sawyer said. “And it was killed by the descendants of Black people…We took your hero down.”
Johnson didn’t acknowledge Sawyer’s comments in the video, but continued to pace back and forth singing and holding the flag. Sawyer in turn urged the media to continue capturing Johnson, saying at one point “I will not let him win.”
In a second video of the encounter, when Sawyer called the removal of the remains a “powerful moment,” Johnson interjected, “It’s a communist moment.”
“You know who else has been called communist?” Sawyer asked. “They called Martin Luther King a communist…. They called the Black Panthers communists. James Weldon Johnson was called a communist. Muhammad Ali was called communist.”
“You’re a communist,” Johnson said repeatedly.
Sawyer said Johnson has threatened to “beat my a–” and has threatened her life, although the comments weren’t included in either of the two videos.
“Make sure you get a picture of the man who just threatened my life, the man who just said he was gonna lay hands on me,” Sawyer told the press around her. “And then make sure that you go down there when they arrest him.”
Sawyer told HuffPost she has filed a police report against Johnson, and Memphis police are investigating the incident, considering a potential intimidation charge against the man.
“Yesterday was pretty jarring,” she told WMC5 on Wednesday, June 2. She said Johnson is a member of the group Confederate 901 and that she has received many threats from the group in the past.
“He’s made videos about me, threatening me, calling me names. His group Confederate 901 has pictures and memes of me,” Sawyer said. “I’ve gotten inbox messages from them telling me, you know, they hope they find me floating in the Mississippi River.”
Sawyer said she hired private security and asked Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies for protection in recent years.
The encounter prompted new security measures to be put in place at the park. On Wednesday, fences had been put up to keep people a safe distance away from where the work is set to continue for several weeks.