MEMPHIS -- Crews worked through the night Wednesday to remove two Confederate statues from parks in Memphis, Tennessee, after city officials sold the land to a nonprofit entity.
Crowds gathered outside Health Sciences Park as cranes lifted the equestrian statue of Civil War general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from its pedestal. About 1.5 miles away, a similar operation was underway at Memphis Park to remove a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.
"Bring it down," onlookers shouted as the Davis statue was lifted from its base.
The statues' removal is the latest development in a national debate over Confederate monuments.
Calls to remove the monuments started after Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015 in an attempt to "start a race war." The debate flared up again in August after white nationalists marched to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was killed amid violent clashes between demonstrators.
"History is being made in Memphis tonight," the city's Mayor Jim Strickland said. "The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum.
The Forrest statue was placed in 1904 amid the passage of Jim Crow-era segregation laws, Strickland said in a news conference Wednesday night. The Davis statue was placed in 1964 amid the battle for civil rights.
The removal of the statues comes three months before crowds are expected to descend on Memphis for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death at the Lorraine Motel.
"Our community wants to reserve places of reverence for those that we honor," Strickland said.
City leaders found a legal way to remove statues
The city appears to have taken an unusual route to remove the controversial symbols after years of disputes over what to do with them.
In the past, city leaders had voted to change the name of three parks that honored Confederate figures in Memphis. They also voted to remove one of the statues but the Tennessee Protection Act -- a law that governs the removal, relocation or renaming of memorials on public property -- prevented them from going forward.
The Tennessee Historical Commission recently denied the city's request for a waiver that would have enabled their removal.
On Wednesday, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to sell the two parks to a nonprofit, which prompted the removal of the statues.
Strickland said the parks were sold for $1,000 each to a nonprofit called Memphis Greenspace.
Sons of Confederate Veterans, a pro-monument group who had fought the city's efforts to remove the statues, called Wednesday's actions a "well-organized, behind the scenes plan by the city."
"It is a deliberate attempt to avoid the state law and the city is breaking the law," Lee Millar with Sons of the Confederate Veterans told WREG.
In a statement, Strickland said the city followed state law through the process.
"The historical commission was not the only legal avenue," he said.
Monuments going down
Many local government officials across the US have been weighing whether to keep Confederate monuments in their cities and towns.
Some say the monuments are apart of history and honor heritage. Others argue that the statues are racist symbols of America's dark legacy of slavery.
The removal of four monuments from public spaces in New Orleans earlier this year stunned historians who thought, after six years of debate, that the day would never come.
The decision by city leaders led to multiple protests, a contractor pulled out of the project after his car was lit on fire by protesters and at the end, it cost the city $2.1 million.
Multiple people had also been arrested for the toppling of a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, and a man was arrested in Houston after he was accused of attempting to blow up a monument.