The last two post have been about Nathan B. Forrest’s claims to civil rights advocate. Much of this discussion hinges on a speech that Forrest gave in Memphis to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association in 1875. First, here is the text of the speech:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen,for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand." (Prolonged applause.) End of speech.
If you do a Google search for "Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association" you will get a short list of sites that include the above-cited speech. The sites include an SCV Camp, Dixie Outfitters, the History Channel, and an array of politically-inspired websites. I would like to know where I can find the original speech. Perhaps the Memphis Daily Appeal or another local paper printed it following the speech, but it would be interesting to see the original hand-written copy by Forrest. Given his limited education I find it difficult to attribute the content to Forrest. Of course, he could have spoken without a speech, but then a comparison of transcriptions would be absolutely essential.
I spent a little time today reading through a section of Brian Steel Wills’s The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest (University of Kansas Press, 1992) and in my mind the best of the recent Forrest studies. What I find so interesting is that Wills does not cite this speech at all. Given the notoriety of the speech I find it difficult to consider that he was unaware of it. There is an extensive manuscripts list in the bibliography section, which lists Forrest papers at the Chicago Historical Society, University of Georgia, Memphis Public Library, Huntington Library, and the U.S. Army Military Institute at Carlisle. In addition three Memphis newspapers are listed. Perhaps a copy of his speech or an early transcription is contained in one of these collections or on microfilm.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked something obvious and I probably run the risk of looking like a fool. Still, I would like for someone to identify the source for this particular speech.