Confederate Symbols Are Coming Down. Should Dolly Parton Go Up Instead?

As calls grow to rid the nation of Confederate memorials, another movement is rising to replace them with the likeness of an icon many feel represents the opposite of hatred and oppression: Dolly Parton.

An online petition asking the Tennessee governor and legislators to erect statues of the trailblazing singer-songwriter in place of Confederate soldiers has gathered more than 14,000 signatures and the enthusiastic backing of Parton scholars.

“Tennessee is littered with statues memorializing Confederate officers,” the petition on says. “History should not be forgotten, but we need not glamorize those who do not deserve our praise. Instead, let us honor a true Tennessee hero, Dolly Parton.”

A spokesman for Gov. Bill Lee did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. But there have been efforts to replace symbols of the Confederacy with Ms. Parton before.

In December, a Republican legislator proposed building a statue of Ms. Parton in place of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former Confederate general, slave trader and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, that looms prominently in the Tennessee Statehouse. The statue remains.

Last week, some black legislators left the Capitol in tears and anger after proposals to remove the bust of Forrest and other divisive figures failed.

Academics who have studied the legacy of Ms. Parton, a Tennessean who has supported philanthropic causes like women’s health care, children’s literacy and helping victims of wildfires, said her universal appeal should make the decision to replace Confederate figures with her likeness an easy one.

“Dolly Parton is the one person in Tennessee that everyone agrees on,” said Lynn Sacco, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who has taught a course on Ms. Parton. “One of my students called her the ‘Jesus of Appalachia.’”

Ms. Parton has spent her entire career artfully avoiding taking political positions and deflecting questions about where she stands on controversial issues with a joke or vague response, said Lydia Hamessley, a professor of music at Hamilton College who is publishing a book about the entertainer.

“I think she understands that she has fans across the political spectrum and knows that you don’t want to alienate anyone,” she said. “Dolly just loves everyone and wants everyone to be happy and well taken care of. It makes it sound like she’s not doing enough, but I think she does what she can in her way.”

Not that she has not courted trouble over the Confederacy.

Ms. Parton was criticized in 2017 for the “Dixie Stampede,” a dinner-theater-style re-enactment of the Civil War where visitors had to choose to side with the North or the South. The following year, the show was renamed, and a spokesman for Ms. Parton said it would be updated.

Jad Abumrad, who hosts the WNYC podcast “Dolly Parton’s America,” has followed the debates over the bust of Forrest and the Stampede. He said Ms. Parton remained a far more qualified candidate for commemoration than a Confederate general who led a gruesome massacre of Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“All I can say is that a bronzed bust of Dolly Parton is light years better than a bronzed bust of the first grand wizard of the KKK,” Mr. Abumrad said in an email. “The guy massacres 300 black soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864, literally burns them alive, and then we put his murderous face in the state capital? Gimme Dolly.”

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