Contributor Professor of Political Science, LaGrange College
Think that if he were alive today, General Nathan Bedford Forrest would embrace Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of nine blacks in a Charleston Church who hoped to start a race war?
Think again. In fact, toward the end of his life, General Forrest would have likely sought to exterminate those who would kill blacks in his name, or for his “cause,” like Roof.
Sure General Nathan Bedford Forrest may have helped lead the Ku Klux Klan, and he’s blamed for the massacre of Ft. Pillow, but there’s a part of Forrest that needs to be told to those who continue to cheer him as a champion of the South. He eventually saw the light, softened his racism, and eventually worked to destroy the KKK. It was the best thing he ever did.
Forrest is a controversial figure today. He’s memorialized in a statue off Interstate 65 in Nashville, and I see it every time I visit my parents, who live one exit away. That statue, designed by the attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, also surrounded by Confederate flags, is the subject of debate, as is the bust of him in the Tennessee statehouse, a response to Roof’s slaughter of African Americans after a bible study.
Now I’ve never been a fan of General Forrest. I wrote a column criticizing Generals William T. Sherman and General Nathan Bedford Forrest for their actions during the Civil War a week before the shooting, and published other articles in the past calling for Mississippi not to honor Forrest on a license plate, and Memphis not to have a statue for him.
But even this Forrest critic can admit that the Klan founder did one great thing for this country. He disbanded the KKK, and even worked to fight those who wanted to keep it going.
As Ben Phelan with PBS writes:
“After only a year as Grand Wizard, in January 1869, faced with an ungovernable membership employing methods that seemed increasingly counterproductive, Forrest issued KKK General Order Number One: “It is therefore ordered and decreed, that the masks and costumes of this Order be entirely abolished and destroyed.” By the end of his life, Forrest’s racial attitudes would evolve — in 1875, he advocated for the admission of blacks into law school — and he lived to fully renounce his involvement with the all-but-vanished Klan.”
If you read Eddy W. Davison’s “Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma,” on page 464 and 474-475, you can see that Forrest not only publicly disavowed the KKK and worked to terminate it, but in August 1874, Forrest “volunteered to help ‘exterminate’ those men responsible for the continued violence against the blacks.” After the murder of four blacks by a lynch mob after they were arrested for defending themselves at a BBQ, Forrest wrote to Tennessee Governor Brown, offering “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.”
So for those who seek to kill blacks while waving a Confederate flag, or those who burn African American churches across the South, including my state of Georgia, keep this in mind: General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the Confederate War heroes you worship, wouldn’t have approved. In fact, they might have fought you for your illegal actions.
Tennessee GOP Lawmaker Wants To Oust Bust Of KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A Republican lawmaker in Tennessee is calling for the bust of a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard to be removed from the state Capitol.
State Rep. Jeremy Faison (R) said in an interview with The Tennessean, published Tuesday, that he believes the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest should be moved to a museum and replaced with a statue honoring someone else.
“If we want to preserve history, then let’s tell it the right way,” Faison said. “Right now there are eight alcoves [in the Capitol]. Seven are filled with white men.”
The lawmaker made some suggestions for who could replace Forrest.
“How about getting a lady in there?” he said. “My daughter is 16, and I would love for her to come into the Capitol and see a lady up there. What’s wrong with Anne Dallas Dudley getting in that alcove?” (Dudley, originally from Nashville, was a prominent activist in the 19th-century suffragist movement.)
“What’s wrong with someone like Dolly Parton being put in that alcove?” Faison suggested, referring to the iconic singer from Locust Ridge. The lawmaker also said the state could erect a monument dedicated to the enslaved people who constructed the Capitol building.
Born in Tennessee, Forrest is known to history as a slave trader and the first grand wizard of the KKK. As a Confederate general, he led an attack in 1864 that has come to be known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. Three hundred Union soldiers, including 200 Black soldiers, are believed to have been killed, many as they were trying to surrender.
Activists and other Tennesseans have petitioned for years to remove two statues of Forrest, including the bust at the state Capitol. But many Republican politicians in the state, including Gov. Bill Lee, continue to defend Confederate monuments and Ku Klux Klan honors as “part of our history.”
Lee told The Tennessean last year that he believed it would be “a mistake to whitewash history” ― a way of framing the issue that Faison dismissed.
“I fundamentally reject any notion by someone saying that moving him [the Forrest bust] to the museum is trying to whitewash history,” Faison told The Tennessean.
He continued: “Hitler has earned his place in history, but they don’t put monuments of him in Germany anymore. There’s plenty of people who are notable characters. That doesn’t mean they deserve to be in a place of honor.”
Faison noted that he previously agreed with the governor but changed his mind after studying Forrest’s legacy at the suggestion of fellow state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D), a Black lawmaker from Memphis.
Over the summer, Lee re-signed a proclamation declaring July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in the state. The governor later said he would look into changing the law after facing criticism from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who spoke out against the proclamation in a tweet.
Lee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Faison’s remarks.
The Republican politician suggested honoring Dolly Parton or the enslaved people who built the state Capitol instead.
Tennessee Governor Wants To Amend Day That Honors Nathan Bedford Forrest.
POSTED 9:30 AM, JANUARY 20, 2020, BY AP
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee will introduce legislation this year that would amend a law requiring Tennessee to honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Lee’s office confirmed Friday that the Republican, who has previously expressed his displeasure over the honor, was working on the bill. The office did not provide further details.
According to the law in question, Tennessee governors must sign six proclamations throughout the year designating the following days of special observance: Robert E. Lee Day (January 19), Abraham Lincoln Day (February 12), Andrew Jackson Day (March 15), Confederate Decoration Day (June 3), Nathan Bedford Forrest Day (July 13) and Veterans’ Day (November 11).
The law encourages the governor to invite the public to observe each day in schools and churches. It does not, however, outline a penalty should the governor choose to not sign the proclamation.
Lee received national backlash in July when he not only signed the Nathan Bedford Forrest proclamation, but also declined to answer reporter questions over whether he thought the law should change. Lee later clarified that he didn’t like signing the proclamation and would prefer to see the law changed.
“While it is my job as governor to enforce the law, I want Tennesseans to know where my heart is on this issue,” Lee said at the time. “Our state’s history is rich, complex and in some cases painful. With this in mind, I will be working to change this law.”
As of Saturday, Tennessee’s secretary of state’s website did not show that Lee had signed the Robert E. Lee Day proclamation. His office also did not respond to questions if the governor wanted to change that day celebrating the Confederate general, which falls the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Prior proclamations have said “Robert E. Lee is widely recognized as one of the outstanding Americans of the nineteenth century.”
Forrest, a Confederate cavalry general, amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War.
He was in charge during the battle of Fort Pillow, where an estimated 300 African-American soldiers were massacred by Forrest’s men after surrendering. The massacre provoked outrage in the North and was one of the most bitterly disputed incidents in the Civil War.
“I know that it’s hard to renegotiate history, but at the end of the day we need to celebrate folks that bring people together and not necessarily tear people apart. I hope that we will consider that and reexamine all of these proclamations for state holidays,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. London Lamar, also from Memphis, is sponsoring a bill this year to remove the Forrest Day designation.
Previous Democratic lawmaker attempts to change the law have been unsuccessful.
The attention to the Forrest proclamation comes as lawmakers also have debated for years on possibly moving the bust of Forrest that has sat inside the Tennessee Statehouse for decades.
A state commission is scheduled to meet in February to address the bust, just months after Lee appointed two new members to the panel.