KKK and SCV Fight for Confederate Heritage


This week I am going to write an essay for my column at the Atlantic on the recent controversy surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  Court Carney’s 2001 JSH essay on Forrest and historical memory has been incredibly helpful in placing this most recent incident within a much broader context.  I highly recommend it to those of you who are interested in Forrest and his place in our collective memory.

So, if all goes as planned it looks like the KKK will rally in Memphis on March 30.  This weekend we learned that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has requested that the Klan cancel their plans.  The basis for such a claim rests on dubious grounds.  Consider Lee Millar, who is a spokesman for the SCV:

We just want everyone to know that we are here to protect and preserve our history and do it in a gentlemanly fashion. [emphasis added]

You may remember that a few weeks ago Millar referred to Forrest as a “humane slave trader.”  What I find interesting is Millar’s and the SCV’s appropriation of Forrest’s history as their own.  The problem is that no one individual or organization can claim sole ownership of Forrest’s legacy and in this case it seems to me that the KKK has a legitimate claim to honoring the man.  They will likely want to single out Forrest’s growth during the antebellum years into one of Tennessee’s wealthiest slaveholders as well as his presence at Fort Pillow and early leadership of the Klan itself.  That seems to me to be as legitimate a claim as one will find among the major stakeholders who admire Forrest.

As I pointed out before, this places the SCV in a very difficult position.  Nothing that Millar or anyone else in the SCV has said challenges the Klan’s embrace of Forrest.  This could prove to be a very messy and uncomfortable event for the SCV given that they agree with the Klan’s position that the park should not have been renamed.

Klan members are likely to parade in Memphis with the Confederate flag on March 30.  The SCV can bring their own flags as well, but they run the risk of being identified with the Klan.  If they decide to stand up against the Klan in a show of solidarity with the general public they not only will be aligned with those who believe the park should be renamed, but they also will have acknowledged the very facts about Forrest that they have spent so much time either minimizing or denying.

This is too good to be true.

36 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Feb 18, 2013 @ 19:14

    Memphis is a city with a 62% black population. I’m guessing that the park was only created because of the fact that at the time of the naming blacks were denied access to the ballot box. So having the Forrest Park name continue would simply crystallize a century of Jim Crow and not just memorialize an individual slave trader and terrorist. Why should modern day African Americans honor an act by the rump city council that named the park after a murderer of blacks?

    • Lyle Smith Feb 19, 2013 @ 8:02

      They would be smart to conserve the city’s history so Jim Crow and the Lost Cause can be properly taught to future generations. It’s not just about us today, but about what our ancestors left us, for better or worse. The city council is not only destroying the Jim Crow and Lost Cause memory of whites, but the Jim Crow and Lost Cause memory of their black ancestors. It’s really kind of stupid actually.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2013 @ 8:48


        Keep me in mind that no final decision has been made re: the name of the park. They could easily go back and simply amend the name. Part of the rush to change the name stemmed from impending interference from the state.

      • Pat Young Feb 19, 2013 @ 10:06

        Lyle, naming a park after Forrest may have been an act of Jim Crow, but keeping that name does nothing to commemorate or interpret the racism inherent in the original naming ritual. The park was named after Forrest because a white leadership, unburdened by an enfranchised black electorate, could pretty much do as it pleased. If you want to interpret that, put a sign up next to city hall saying “All legislation passed here before 1965 was for the benefit of the white citizens of this city.” That is pretty neutral as historical markers go and not as misleading as a lot of the crap masquerading as history that i have seen.

        • Brad Feb 19, 2013 @ 13:01

          How about a sign that says why it was named the way it was originally and why it has been changed. Hopefully, people entering the Park will read it.

    • Brad Feb 19, 2013 @ 12:58

      I agree with you essentially but it’s also not (cliche here) an easy issue. There shouldn’t be a park honoring him but ordinary people (as opposed to those like us who have an abiding interest in what happened) shouldn’t forget who he was and what he did. Perhaps the suggestion that Kevin mentioned a couple of weeks ago (Wells Forrest Park) would make sense. However, a name like or similar to Health Sciences Park is just a bad idea.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2013 @ 13:00

        Changing the name of the park to Health Sciences Park was simply a quick fix in response to steps by the state to prevent any changes. It was always intended as a temporary measure.

      • Andy Hall Feb 19, 2013 @ 13:25

        “Perhaps the suggestion that Kevin mentioned a couple of weeks ago (Wells Forrest Park) would make sense.”

        I agree, but the door’s rapidly closing on that option. “Wells Forrest” would represent a compromise on the part of those who want no part of Nathan Bedford Forrest at all, and would prefer to see his name removed entirely. If the klansmen have their rally next month, they will have shown in the most dramatic way possible that they proudly consider Forrest one of their own, and want everyone to know it. If the Klan does this, they will drag the SCV and other heritage groups over the cliff of public opinion with them, and the “slippery slope” of “Wells Forrest” is going to look pretty good in hindsight. But then it will be too late.

  • Brad Feb 18, 2013 @ 16:11

    This just shows you cannot escape history. It is with us and the SCV, warts and all. Similarly, changing the name doesn’t brush the past under the rug or eliminate it: it’s still there.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 18, 2013 @ 11:10

    This may be veering off topic, but I think this question and answer (by Forrest) is important to note. This exchange was published in the Report of the Joint Select Commitee. We often hear about Forrest taking blacks with him into war and his praise for them. This is true, but let us not forget that Forrest was also unequivocal about standing with blacks in the post-war period only if they supported the whites. He was also quite clear that war was about slavery. Yikes.

    Q: “What do you think of negro suffrage?”

    A: “I am opposed to it under any and all circumstances, and in our convention urged our party not to commit themselves at all upon the subject. If the negroes vote to enfranchise us, I do not think I would favor their disfranchisement. We will stand by those who help us. And here I want you to understand distinctly I am not an enemy to the negro. We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have; and, more than that, I would sooner trust him than the white scalawag or carpet-bagger. When I entered the army I took forty-seven negroes into the army with me, and forty-five of them were surrendered with me. I said to them at the start: ‘This fight is against slavery; if we lose it, you will be made free; if we whip the fight, and you stay with me and be good boys, I will set you free; in either case you will be free.’ These boys staid with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.”

  • Bummer Feb 18, 2013 @ 10:26

    All the flag waving and the costumes, sheets or not, these folks are living in a dream world. The marching and the chants are a feeble excuse for recognition. They will only make a bad situation worse. The “old guy” lived this routine in the 50’s and 60’s, it was boring and a disgrace then, as it is now. A waste of time and energy for everyone.


  • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 18, 2013 @ 9:50

    Let’s be clear. Forrest’s tactics are not studied nor taught at U. S. military installations. Tactics similar to what he employed might be, but those tactics are not his and his alone. Another “memory” conflict as I see it.

    As for the Klan, let’s also cut through the weeds and admit why that organization is planning a gathering in Memphis. It is largely because Forrest was affiliated with the Klan, as his former comrade in arms J. W. Morton quite opening admitted.

    That being said, the situation in Memphis is a complete shame. Changing park names on a whim is dangerous territory, and let’s not forget that the park is also a cemetery (since Forrest and his wife are buried there). Changing the name doesn’t change anything, except to try and cover up or eliminate a segment of history.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2013 @ 9:53

      Good points, Eric. Nothing that Forrest did on the battlefield had any impact on the evolution and outcome of the war. He was little more than a sideshow.

      I also agree with you re: the name change of the park, though there has been talk of this for a number of years. As I’ve said before, I think it is entirely appropriate to amend the name of the park. That would have acknowledged the city’s rich history in a way that would allow for some careful reflection for those interested.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 18, 2013 @ 10:29

        Sorry about this typo:

        “…J. W. Morton quite opening admitted.” I meant to say:

        “…J. W. Morton quite openly admitted.”

    • Andy Hall Feb 18, 2013 @ 10:09

      Eric, I’m not happy about the name change to the park, either, but will continue to argue that it’s within the city’s authority to do so, and efforts be the Tennessee legislature to remove that authority over certain types of monuments is bad governance.

      As with most “heritage” disputes, I suspect that this is one that the majority of Memphians are not especially torqued about, one way or another. But the longer this goes on, the more polarized this dispute will be. I’m skeptical that the Klan will actually show up in March, because they’ve already achieved what they want, which is to get some headlines and remind people that they’re still around. If they do march, though, it will generate massive media coverage and turn large numbers of Memphians (of all races) who today might ask, “Nathan Bedford Who?” into folks who are virulently opposed to that monument being in downtown Memphis. I don’t know what’s in store for the park and the monument and the gravesite, but the high-profile appearance of the Klan in this dispute is a godsend to those who are opposed to it. Confederate heritage types have long been willfully blind (or rationalizing) to the ugly aspects of Forrest’s life, but the “support” of the Klan in this is actually a bigger threat to the park and monument than folks like City Councilman Myron Lowery.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 18, 2013 @ 10:36

        Re: the issue of name changes, I have my own beliefs. While I agree that the city should be allowed to name and therefore change city owned parks whithout interference, I also believe there are times when a “higher” level of government (in this case the state), should be allowed to block such knee jerk reactions. Once you go down the road of local government doing what it wants, it opens to door to change whenever convenient. I think the same hold true for state government(s). If they are running about willy nilly, then the federal government can and at times has an obligation to step in.

        Whatever I find ironic about the argument of those stating that the city council overstepped its bounds and were hoping for state intervention, is that such an approach runs counter to their general approach to government. To see them appealing to a “higher” level of government instead of vice versa is irony at its height.

        • Andy Hall Feb 18, 2013 @ 10:41

          “Whatever I find ironic about the argument of those stating that the city council overstepped its bounds and were hoping for state intervention, is that such an approach runs counter to their general approach to government.”

          It’s an old, old story. The fire-eaters of 1860-61 weren’t too keen on states’ rights and nullification when it came to states like New York ignoring the Fugitive Slave Act.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2013 @ 11:02


          But what makes you think that the state had the best interest of the city in mind? Based on what I read the individuals who started the legislative process simply disagreed with the decision of the council. It’s not like the city council violated the law. Why would it be the state’s business at all?

          • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 18, 2013 @ 11:17


            I’m not sure the city council had the city’s interests in mind – rather I think they had their own agenda. But that is simply my opinion and you are correct that the city did not violate the law. All three parks are city owned and fall under the city’s jurisdiction. From what I know the State was looking to get involved to prevent this sort of thing happening anywhere and for just about any reason. It is a stretch, but who is to say the name Alvin York, or even MLK, could not be stripped from a park simply because a city council thinks it is a good idea? For me, the whole situation is very sad, and very discouraging.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2013 @ 11:20


              A complete mess indeed. No disagreement there. I am not too concerned with the slippery slope argument as presented here given the history of the controversy at Forrest Park. I also can’t say much about the intentions of individual members of the city council. What I can say is that each member ultimately answers to their constituents so whether they have the city’s interests in mind will be determined by the next election.

              • Jimmy Dick Feb 18, 2013 @ 20:25

                Let’s not forget when that park was named for Forrest. It was in the nadir of race relations and the high tide for the Lost Cause mythology. That park was deliberately named for Forrest for several reasons. I can easily see two of them. One being to keep blacks in their place and the other to perpetuate the lie that the Lost Cause is. I think there is an appropriate place for Forrest, but it must be one with an explanation of his life and deeds no matter what they are.

    • Billy Bearden Feb 19, 2013 @ 17:40


      I did read once a while back Forrest’s name in a US military training manual while researching another issue, but cannot locate my files on that just now. Perhaps it is in the Operations Field Manual 100 – 5? I dont recall right now – that seems to be my only “memory” issue 😉 . BTW, here is a ‘study’ done by a US Naval Captain on Forrest for the Joint Military Operation Department and Naval War College http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a283415.pdf

  • Billy Bearden Feb 18, 2013 @ 0:16

    As a SCV member, and one who went to Memphis in 2005 to oppose the race hustler Rev Al Sharpton’s call to remove the remains of Mr and Mrs Forrest, I can say that for me, my only concern with Forrest began in 1861 and ended in 1865 – his service as a “Confederate Veteran” His skill as a battlefield tactician, his prowess, his style and all those things currently being studied by the US Military for training our soldiers today.

    What he did before the war was as a citizen of the United States. What he did after the war was as a citizen of the United States.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2013 @ 3:00

      The debate over the Forrest statue did not begin with Al Sharpton. That’s a convenient explanation that ignores the complexity of Southern heritage and memory. Your selective amnesia speaks volumes.

      • Billy Bearden Feb 19, 2013 @ 17:25

        No, the 2005 incident was initiated by Memphis city councilman Walter Bailey, and Sharpton was there at Bailey’s invite, the more recent issues of the removed granite marker “Forrest Park” was again Bailey and public works head George Little. And Councilman Myron Lowery has had from at least 2005 till now to name something in honor of Ida B Wells, but it only really ever surfaces in conjunction with the latest Forrest controversy

        • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2013 @ 17:34

          The controversy goes back before 2005.

  • Pat Young Feb 17, 2013 @ 21:02


  • Al Mackey Feb 17, 2013 @ 18:34

    Given that Forrest was a grand dragon of the KKK, it’s fitting that the KKK march in support of keeping the park named after him. If the SCV wants to be historically accurate, they should welcome the KKK’s support. 😉

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2013 @ 3:04

      and that is what makes this the perfect Southern heritage storm.

      • Billy Bearden Apr 2, 2013 @ 5:36

        Replys on this thread is OK, but I’d like to see a you do a new post on this subject:

        The Klan has finally rallied in Memphis. This is the original story: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2013/mar/30/kkk-rally-cops-outnumber-civilians-anticipation-ra/

        The Memphis television news coverage immediately following the rally also was in the same vein as the newpaper story above. The not so shocking secret was that the Klan and others used the Klan and United States flags, as seen in the 29 photos in the Commercial Appeal.

        However, in less than 20 hours after the event, the true photos were scrapped from media coverage in favor of pictures of a more selacious nature, seen in this link:

        I submit doing this is to push a certain agenda, that which you incorrectly assumed above
        “Klan members are likely to parade in Memphis with the Confederate flag on March 30.”

        • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2013 @ 5:40

          Hi Billy,

          I was surprised that no one brought along a Confederate flag. If I am not mistaken the second link is to an article that appeared before the rally so how is that a distortion? They apparently used a stock image.

        • Andy Hall Apr 2, 2013 @ 5:51

          That second news item was posted in FEBRUARY. Did you miss that?

          And I have no idea how you can claim that “the true photos were scrapped from media coverage” when they’re still right there at the link, where they’ve been since the day of the event.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2013 @ 7:18

            The date is as clear as day. I have no idea what Billy is talking about.

            • Andy Hall Apr 2, 2013 @ 7:29

              The fundamental problem — for which I don’t see a resolution — is that the Klan and Confederate heritage groups both commemorate the Confederacy and lionize Forrest, and the rally on Saturday was done in response to the kerfluffle over Forrest Park. Both groups are on the same side in this issue, and no matter uncomfortable the SCV is about it, this in not an unforseeable situation. The Klan has held numerous rallies hailing Forrest as the early leader of their organization (notably in Pulaski), and it was probably inevitable that those two streams of Forrest fanboys would be forced together at some point. Confederate heritage folks have made Nathan Bedford Forrest a bigger, more legendary figure today than he ever was during his lifetime, and now the chickens have come home to roost.

              • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2013 @ 7:39

                I think you make an excellent point, but I would go even further and suggest that the KKK is actually on firmer footing when it comes to their identification with Forrest. It’s the SCV that has turned him into something he never was, especially when it comes to the ridiculous claims about his slaveholding and views on race. Forrest simply can’t be saved.

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