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A city took down two Confederate statues. Now, state lawmakers are punishing the city for it

Late last year, Memphis took down a pair of Confederate statues from a park.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in the Tennessee House passed an amendment to a state appropriations bill that strips $250,000 in funding that the city was to receive for its upcoming bicentennial celebration.

One of the amendment's sponsors, state Rep. Steve McDaniel, admitted this was in retaliation for Memphis removing the Confederate statues.

"If you recall back in December, Memphis did something that removed historical markers in the city," McDaniel said on the House floor. "It was the city of Memphis that did this and it was full knowing that it was not the will of the legislature."

That generated an angry response from Memphis representatives.

"This amendment, and the explanation, is hateful, it is unkind, it is un-Christian-like and it is unfair," said state Rep. Raumesh Akbari. "Memphis is a city in this state, and I'm sick of people in this House acting like it's not."

The skirmish over the amendment highlights the tension that often arises between the mostly-black, Democratic city and the largely-white and rural conservative Republicans that dominate the state legislature.

Although the controversial amendment passed in the House -- by a vote of 56-31 -- the appropriations bill that it's attached to is still working its way through the legislature.

An unconventional plan

Crews removed the statues -- of Civil War general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from Memphis' Health Science Park and of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis from Memphis Park -- in the middle of the night in late December.

The removals came after years of disputes over what to do with the controversial statues. The city took an unconventional route that critics said was illegal. But Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland insisted the entire process was within the bounds of the law.

City leaders voted in 2013 to change the name of three parks that honored Confederate figures in Memphis. Then, in 2015, they voted to move the Forrest statue. To proceed with the removal, they sought a waiver from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a law that governs the removal, relocation or renaming of memorials on public property. But the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the city's request.

The denial led the city council to pass legislation in September allowing it to sell parkland to a nonprofit for less than fair market value, Strickland said. In addition to letting the city sell land to a private entity, the law allowed the private entity to remove statutes from its land.

The Memphis City Council then voted unanimously to sell the two parks to a nonprofit, paving the way for the statues' removal. Strickland said the parks were sold for $1,000 each to Memphis Greenspace, a nonprofit led by a Shelby County commissioner. The organization was incorporated after the law's passage in October, Strickland said.

Memphis celebrates its bicentennial in 2019.