Update: I didn’t see this one coming, but it is nice to see the SCV and NAACP working together in opposition to the Klan’s planned rally in Memphis next month. Millar shows that he should have been included in the city’s panel to re-name Forrest Park. Pastor Norman is quite impressive in his own right. Last week Millar described Forrest as a “benevolent slave trader” and in his interview suggests that Forrest disbanded the Klan, which really didn’t have much to do with white supremacy to begin with. It’s a tough sell and ultimately a losing proposition. Regardless of how you interpret Forrest’s personal history the excerpt below clearly shows that the dedication of the monument had everything to do with Memphis’s racial climate in 1905.
A number of you have emailed me requesting additional information on the historical context of the unveiling of the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial in Memphis in 1905. I mentioned the other day that the best source I’ve found is Court Carney’s Journal of Southern History essay, “The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest” (August 2001).
According to Carney the Forrest memorial in Memphis can be traced to a number of factors, most importantly, the economic downturn that the city faced in the period immediately following the war and especially the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The epidemic hit the white community especially hard and by the end of the century African Americans had risen to constitute half of the city’s population. The elite white population that was lost during the epidemic was replaced, according to Carney, by an influx of rural whites, who were much “less racially tolerant than their urban contemporaries.”
Racial antagonism continued to increase in the first decade of the twentieth century. The Memphis Commercial Appeal published a daily cartoon entitled “Hambone’s Meditations” that featured a crude caricature of an African American who spoke in coarse dialect. Created to entertain white Memphians with the “foibles” of black people, the cartoon reflected the everyday racial slurs that African Americans experienced. Racism was rampant in the nation in general, and in 1905 Thomas Dixon published his bestselling paean to the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansmen. During a period that featured some of the worst racial atrocities in American history, the Klan became a potent symbol of white supremacy–and in the midst of this resurgence of racism, Memphis chose to unveil its bronze equestrian memorial to Forrest. Had Memphis constructed such a memorial in the 1880s, it likely would have reflected the postwar themes in evidence at his funeral–a naturally gifted general of strong religious faith who had overcome childhood poverty to become a wealthy businessman–although the divided attitudes of white Memphians at the time might have tempered the tenor of tributes to the general’s memory. Instead, by 1905, the year of the Forrest statue’s dedication, increasing racial brutality–as well as the new racial and class composition of the city–had helped to unite white Memphians and in turn transform the city’s image of Forrest.
As race relations worsened in Memphis, Forrest’s name became increasingly connected with the Ku Klux Klan for the first time since the early 1870s. Some of the earliest public references to Forrest’s role as Grand Wizard occurred in 1901, when Memphis hosted the annual United Confederate Veterans Reunion. The Memphis Commercial Appeal, for example, mentioned his role as “Grand Cyclops” of the Klan, a connection not alluded to in the public remembrances of the 1870s. Forrest’s image as leader of the Ku Klux Klan became more explicit in the weeks before the 1905 unveiling. An editorial in the Memphis News-Scimitar was accompanied by a cartoon entitled “Forrest Again in the White Shroud,” which portrayed the Forrest statue still under the protective cloth that draped the monument. The cartoonist saw in the shrouded statue the glorious memories of the Klan, and behind Forrest he drew ten ghostly Klansmen raiding the Memphis park. The accompanying article proclaimed that “Forrest has come to his own again.” The Klan, the article explained, was organized “for the protection of the honor and independence of Southern social condition.” “It may be only a mirage of a war-loving brain that people the park again with spectral men in ghostly garb,” the writer admitted, but white Memphians were comforted with the image of Forrest as “that leader whose iron hand held the reins of safety over the South when Northern dominion apotheosized the negro and set misrule and devastation to humiliate a proud race. (pp. 610-11)
Regardless of where you stand in this debate, one thing that the above passage makes perfectly clear is that the dedication of monuments to historical figures is never simply about the past. The individuals and organizations involved in these projects, along with the community that supports it, have their own stories to tell. I am hoping to have my essay ready for the Atlantic by the end of the day on Friday.