More than 200 people were gathered at Bicentennial Park Friday evening, all sharing the same mission: to march towards the Confederate monument in downtown Franklin and demand the statue’s removal.
The protest was organized by Students for Black Empowerment, a group started by four Williamson County residents and college freshmen who felt renewed urgency to speak out against the statue amidst legal battles over its ownership.
Also known as “Chip,” the Confederate monument in downtown Franklin was erected in 1899 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a nonprofit organization whose stated purpose includes ‘honoring men and women of Confederate descent,’ often through preservation of Confederate memorabilia and monuments.
In September of 2018, the city of Franklin filed a lawsuit against the UDC as a means to determine who actually owned the plot of land at the Franklin Square. On July 14 of this year, Franklin leaders unanimously passed a resolution that would essentially promise the UDC a deed showing the organization owns the plot of land beneath the monument.
That resolution was only a draft, however, and the ultimate decision as to who maintains ownership of the monument - and the land beneath it - will be up to the Chancery Court in the coming weeks.
‘We decided we need to do something fast’
Franklin resident Tariah Lane, one of the four founding members of the student-led organization, said the looming decision over the fate of Franklin’s square was a significant factor in organizing the protest.
“It was kind of an underhanded decision [with] the judge deciding to hand over the deed over to the Daughters of the Confederacy without talking to the people,” Lane said.
“They're supposed to make a decision here soon, so we [decided] we need to do something fast and quick to show that this isn't what the whole city wants.”
“The Truth Behind Chip”
Shortly before setting off to march to the town square, Lane shared to the hundreds of demonstrators a letter she had written about the monument, titled “The Truth Behind Chip.”
It reads: “Chip, the Confederate statue of downtown Franklin, is a sign of treason, disrespect and division; division not just between black and white people, but between the Confederacy and the United States.
“The Confederate South rebelled against its American brothers and left because they could not oppress other people - why is that something to celebrate? It is something to learn from, but not to celebrate.”
“We are not advocating for the destruction of Chip, but for the removal and appropriate placement. Removing Chip is not erasing history, it is ceasing to promote the hateful and divisive ideology of the Confederate South.
“While the South is more than the divisive politics of its ancestors, it is not seen that way when the city of Franklin has a Confederate statue at its center. That statue says that this is what the city believes and celebrates, and that is to celebrate and believe in hate.
“When people of color see that statue, they feel hated, unsafe, unclean, unwelcome and unloved. This city has been my home for the entirety of my life, but home is where you're supposed to feel supported, welcome and loved, so how can I truly call this home if I'm not guaranteed those things? We need to remove this statue so that Franklin can be open and inclusive to all people.
“Why don't we stop flaunting our racist ancestors who supported the oppression of others, and start flaunting our southern hospitality by taking down this statue and actually being hospitable to black people and people of color.”
After a few words from protest organizers, the more than 200 demonstrators commenced their march towards the Franklin square, bearing signs and shouting chants.
Reaching the square, protesters were greeted by a few dozen bystanders, some of whom responded to protesters’ chants of “black lives matter” with “all lives matter.”
Beyond a few heated exchanges, however, protesters marched peacefully to the center of the square and prepped for a few select speakers to share their thoughts on Chip, as well as the broader topic of racial justice.
“This isn’t a time of sadness, but a time of empowerment”
The protest had drawn Tennesseans the state over - one of them being Justin Ridgel of Nashville, who had been asked by organizers to speak during the denomination.
“When I was first asked to do this, I was transported to the moment when I first about the murder of George Floyd - I was defeated,” Ridgel said over megaphone.
“My mental space was so negative at that point, I remember feeling like all of this was pointless. What good was all the marching, protesting and speaking out if we were just doomed to relive the same tragedies over and over again?
“It wasn't until I took the time to reflect on my own emotions that I realized the nuance of this situation: this isn't a time of sadness in this country, but a time of empowerment. Across this country, people from all different walks of life are finding the voices within themselves to stand up against years of oppression, discrimination and violence.
“We're seeing Americans everywhere who used to be silent, finally wake up and see that we can no longer accept the America that was begrudgingly thrown at our feet - it is time for us to fight for the America that is owed to us in the Constitution.
“And that is why we are protesting this statue today. It is a stark reminder of the old America, an America that praises bigotry, an America where the word minority equates to being subhuman. This is the America that our past ancestors and leaders have fought so hard to rectify, and now we must do the same.
“It is up to us to pick up where they left off and ensure that this country keeps its promise for all of its citizens: liberty, and justice for all.”
“I don't think erasing history is a good idea”
Among the few dozen bystanders watching the demonstration was Franklin resident Bryan Pennington, who said that while he was “glad to have [protesters’] voice,” but that to remove Chip would be to "erase history."
“I've been a Franklin resident all my life, went to high school here, and I heard they were having a protest against Chip and thought we'd make our voice heard,” Pennington said.
“I don't think erasing history is a good idea, I'm tired of it, and there's no stop to it. It looks peaceful so that's good, glad to have their voice, but my voice says leave our history alone and leave us alone.”
Back and forth
As protesters and counter protesters congregated around the monument, a few heated exchanges were had, one of them leading to a short-lived physical confrontation. The two were quickly separated, with protesters and counter protesters each retreating to opposite sides of the square shortly thereafter.
Bystanders and protesters occasionally shouted at each other, debating the removal of the statue. However, the protest remained peaceful throughout.
Shortly after 7 p.m., nearly all protesters made their way back to Bicentennial Park. One protester, however, remained at the square for hours. That person was recent Centennial High School graduate Justice Skinner.
“I struggled with the [Black Lives Matter] protests for years, wondering what is the exact right move," Skinner wrote to the Home Page.
"I decided during quarantine to do research, and not stand by the side and debate everything within myself, and make a decision, and I swore to myself, if I was going to make a decision, or if I was going to engage, I was going to go 100%. I wanted to do something, to make a small indent, to stand against oppression.
"I wanted as many people in downtown Franklin to see the sign, and make a choice. Do I stay silent, or do I speak out?"