Lee tweeted on Monday he will work to change a decades-old statute requiring governors to sign a proclamation designating July 13 as "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day." "While it is my job as governor to enforce the law, I want Tennesseans to know where my heart is on this issue," Lee, a Republican, said. "Our state's history is rich, complex and in some cases painful. With this in mind, I will be working to change this law."
Lee's statement came days after he faced national backlash for not only signing the proclamation last week, but also declining to answer reporter questions if he thought the law should change. When pressed, Lee told reporters Thursday that he "hadn't even looked at that law, other than knowing I needed to comply with it."
High-profile Republicans and Democrats quickly criticized the signing, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who called the law "wrong" and argued Tennessee "should not have an official day honoring (Forrest)."
At the same time, others also pointed out that Lee's reluctance to address the proclamation was similar to his lack of action on what to do with the bust of Forrest currently sitting inside the Tennessee Statehouse.
Lee tweeted that he was speaking out in order to "clear the air on something that everyone's been talking about." "I didn't like it, and I want to explain why I didn't like it and why I didn't want to sign it," Lee told WKRN-TV in interview Monday. "There are parts of our history that are painful, particularly to African Americans."
Forrest, a Confederate cavalry general, amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War. He was in charge during the battle of Fort Pillow, where an estimated 300 African-American soldiers were massacred by Forrest's men after surrendering. The massacre provoked outrage in the North and was one of the most bitterly disputed incidents in the Civil War.
State lawmakers voted to place Forrest's bust in the Capitol more than a century after the Civil War ended. "Nathan Bedford Forrest and his parts of life is part of painful history and why I, we need to look at changing law and I will work with legislators to do that," Lee said.
According to the law in question, Tennessee governors must sign six proclamations throughout the year designating the following days of special observance: Robert E. Lee Day (January 19), Abraham Lincoln Day (February 12), Andrew Jackson Day (March 15), Confederate Decoration Day (June 3), Nathan Bedford Forrest Day (July 13) and Veterans' Day (November 11).
The law encourages the governor to invite the public to observe each day in schools and churches. It does not, however, outline a penalty should the governor choose to not sign the proclamation. Previous Democratic lawmaker attempts to change the law have been unsuccessful.
Earlier this year, Lee said he regretted attending and wearing a Confederate uniform during a fraternity "Old South" party while at Auburn University. Lee says he has come to see his participation in the event differently.