As national discussions concerning racial justice, unity and policy have continued over the past several weeks, Confederate statues throughout the country, including the one in Franklin’s public square, have become hot spots of controversy.
However, amid these conversations, the three pastors and the historian who began the Fuller Story Initiative in Franklin three years ago are still working to pursue their mission, which is not to move the monument, but to add context around it.
“Whether we move the (Confederate monument) to a cemetery or somewhere else, we’re still going to have to learn and discuss this history, and we’re still going to be affected by that history,” said Chris Williamson, pastor of Strong Tower Bible Church in Nashville and a co-founder of the initiative.
Williamson, along with Hewitt Sawyers, pastor of West Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church, Kevin Riggs, pastor of Franklin Community Church, and Eric Jacobson, the CEO of the Battle of Franklin Trust, came up with the idea of the Fuller Story in collaboration with community members, and the city leaders in 2017, when a similar controversy around Confederate monuments arose nationwide after a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and others like it.
The Fuller Story group and its partners last year installed four markers around Franklin’s public square in an effort to highlight the experiences of African Americans during the time of the Civil War and a fifth marker that details the Battle of Franklin. Additionally, as of last week, $100,000 has been raised toward the second phase of the initiative, the installation of a U.S. Colored Troops statue near the historic county courthouse. While the goal is to raise $150,000, work on the statue has already begun and is expected to take 10-12 months.
The pastors say that while they initially wanted the Confederate monument removed, they decided, after much thought and prayer, to instead add context around the monument to try to foster unity instead of division. The monument, which isn’t crafted in the image of any particular historical figure, represents Confederate soldiers as a whole.
“I’m an unusual individual because I grew up in this county, and it bothered me mightily to come downtown, and what have you, and see that statue in the town, but as I looked at the situation and we discussed and prayed about it, we came to the conclusion … that this statue didn’t merely represent the kind of statues that are in other places,” Sawyers said, referring to statues of specific Confederate generals and members of the Ku Klux Klan. “In this situation, this statue really is just representing people who fought in the war.”
Sawyers added that he understands why some people are calling for the removal of the statue, but he said he doesn’t want to paint the issue with a broad brush, sharing that he believes the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the state Capitol building is a different issue than Franklin’s monument.
Williamson echoed this sentiment, saying that the situation in Franklin is one he thinks is best remedied by adding to narrative in the square.
“For us, nothing has changed in that we still believe (the Fuller Story) is a great way to unify our city, to educate all people, and to do something redemptive,” he said. “Now, I don’t believe that that means every Confederate monument needs to remain standing because there are many that do need to come down, especially if they truly represent real people who were racist, white supremacist murderers, foul people.”
Jacobson added that the location of the monument in tandem with its inscription, which in part reads, “No country ever had truer sons, no cause nobler champions, no people bolder defenders than the brave soldiers to whose memory this stone is erected,” shows the mindset of many in Franklin at the time, depicting how highly many locals held the Confederate cause.
“They were making a statement in 1899 (that) the Confederate cause was more noble than the cause of the founding of the United States of America. That’s astounding,” Jacobson said. “They’re not only making a statement about race. They’re also making a statement about the Confederate cause is the most noble cause. … But if it’s removed from its place, the opportunity to learn, I think, is lessened.”
He shared that the Fuller Story initiative was meant to uncover history that was already nearly erased and that removing the monument in the square would remove context and part of that story.
“We’ve done quite an effective job of erasing history long before 2020, and that goes to our work putting up the marker … that relates the courthouse and the market house,” he said. “That history wasn’t just erased; it was obliterated and covered by a Confederate monument.”
He said that revealing once more that nearly erased history will “take away so much of the prominent power of that monument.”
“It will stop being ‘Chip’ and will just be a monument to soldiers that died, which is really probably all that it should’ve been, but it’s become something very different, and I think the Fuller Story is the appropriate balance,” he said.
Hopes for other areas
Though pastors Williamson, Sawyers and Riggs are hopeful that conversations about racial unity in the community will bring about positive changes. Williamson said that he would like to see the Confederate battle flag removed from the county seal and Franklin High School’s rebel mascot changed.
“Symbols have power, and for us, even putting up the symbol of a black man in Franklin is very powerful when we consider the history of our city and our county,” Williamson said. “So, symbols can have power, but I think what’s more powerful is when we can address issues of policy. … A statue isn’t going to stop police brutality. A statue isn’t going to stop teachers not understanding how to properly serve the marginalized community.”
He said that he is seeing important discussions within local law enforcement and schools concerning policy, and he stressed the importance of voting.
“The way our system is set up, your voice is heard at the voting booth more than it is anywhere else,” Riggs said. “So, you can start conversations, and those conversations are needed to start through the protests … but ultimately, it’s voting that makes a difference.”
Sawyers said he believes that a broader vote-by-mail option would increase participation in the electoral process, particularly among minorities. Another thing he would like to see change is more equal access to higher education scholarships for minorities.
For more information on the Fuller Story Initiative, visit FullerStory.org.