Dolly Parton Statue at Tenn. Capitol: Why Now Isn’t the Time

No one can dispute the artistic, humanitarian, and philanthropic legacy of Dolly Parton. Her $1 million donation last spring to Vanderbilt University to develop a Covid vaccine has all but helped save the world. But a recent proposal to honor the Sevierville, Tennessee, native with a statue on the capitol grounds in Nashville is premature.

To be sure, the controversial and odious bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest — the Confederate Army general and Ku Klux Klan leader — that currently rests inside the rotunda needs to go. But a statue of Parton, an Instagram tourist magnet though it would be, isn’t the path forward.

Look around. The United States is suffering from the impact of just the latest nationwide wave of vitriolic racism, but America’s bigotry is a scourge older than the country itself. Any new statue of a Tennessee-associated icon at the capitol should nod toward repairing the generational fractures — social, political, and economic — between black residents and the rest of the state.

Think a black advocate for black equity. Perhaps journalist-activist Ida B. Wells, civil-rights lawyer Z. Alexander Looby, or even John Lewis, who was recently honored with a stretch of Nashville’s 5th Avenue renamed in his honor. Artists shouldn’t be excluded either: DeFord Bailey, the first black Grand Ole Opry star, Memphis-born Aretha Franklin, and Tennessee native Isaac Hayes are all worthy choices. Looby and Hayes are particularly appealing. Looby was instrumental in the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960, leading the legal defense of the students involved, while Hayes, a.k.a. “Black Moses,” created the soundtrack for black defiance, black liberation, and black power.

The charge to immortalize Parton at the capitol was the idea of Tennessee State Rep. John Windle, and, to be fair, it has its merits. She’s a rare figure whose legacy is both established and still resonant. For 35 years, via her Dollywood amusement park, Parton has served as a one-person economic stimulus to her hometown of Pigeon Forge, while her global appeal has been a boon for tourism and population growth statewide.

But this isn’t Parton’s time. For one, Dolly still walks among us — she celebrated her 75th birthday this week.

“Putting up a statue of Dolly Parton, who’s still alive, is a little weird,” says Memphis resident Charles L. Hughes, an author, music historian, and scholar who serves as the Director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College. Hughes, who is white, notes that Parton can be a “convenient dodge” for white people wanting to claim a “powerful projection of safe, communal, and broad-minded space.”

“Unfortunately, in many ways, Parton’s statue appropriates the most significant social cause of this era,” Hughes continues. “In short, we can’t have black freedom without black people.”

Rep. Windle’s reasoning for a Parton statue is both a curious and benign one. “The only connection that Dolly Parton and I have is that we are both hillbillies,” the lawmaker told The Tennessean. “[She’s] a passionate person who loves everyone, and everyone loves her.”

It’s in examining the proposed funding for the statue that the flaw in Windle’s plan emerges. According to the lawmaker, money would come from gifts, grants, and donations from private sources, and the public would be welcomed to offer input into the statue’s design. That means: A still-living white woman would be venerated by likely largely white people in a city where white politicians make laws that primarily benefit white people’s freedoms and economic sustainability. Such an approach feels more in tune with the state at the height of the civil-rights movement, not during a time when “black lives matter” is a rallying cry.

“Nashville is a hot seat of rich civil-rights history that nobody ever talks about,” says black author, journalist, and Nashville resident Andrea Williams. She highlights the town’s role as the city where the Freedom Rides commenced, a long history with sit-in protests, and an early proponent of school integration when recounting the notable Nashville civil-rights moments. The civil-rights lawyer Looby, a Fisk University teacher and Antiguan immigrant who earned degrees at Howard University, Columbia University Law School, and New York University, is Williams’ choice for commemoration at the state capitol.

“[Looby] actively spent his life in Nashville, counteracting the racist and exclusionary impact of people like Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Williams says, noting both Looby’s brilliant victories and the terrible assaults on his character and person, including his work in desegregating the city’s public schools in 1957 and the still-unsolved 1960 bombing of his home.

“In the context of this cultural moment, we as black people have to apply a critical lens to consider for what we’re advocating. At the capitol building of a state that upheld — or is still upholding — these ideas of white supremacy and the ‘lost cause of the Confederacy,’ how do we best counteract precisely that?” Williams says. “Putting up a statue of someone who is a generally nice person because Nathan Bedford Forrest was such a bad person is good. But honoring someone who embodied exactly everything that Forrest didn’t is best.”

Besides, for those on a Parton pilgrimage, there is already an important place in Nashville to pay homage to the singer, songwriter, actress, and all-around force of positivity. Parton’s likeness is immortalized in another rotunda not far from the capitol: her induction plaque hangs in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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