The True Meaning of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederate Flag

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller

There is a reason why white supremacists align themselves with a history that includes individuals like Nathan Bedford Forrest and symbols such as the Confederate flag. The history and legacy of Forrest and the Confederate flag have not been sabotaged or rewritten by such people. They can both be found time and time again as salient symbols for individuals and organizations that embrace racism and antisemitism.

I am not surprised to find that Glenn Miller closely identifies with both. As we all learned yesterday and this morning, Miller is the alleged killer of three people outside of Kansas City, MO at two Jewish community centers. The killings took place on the eve of Passover. It’s a story that hits close to my school community and our thoughts go out to the families. None of the victims was Jewish, but Miller’s intent is clear.

People are free to celebrate and embrace Forrest and the flag, but they have no right to demand or even expect others to follow suit. It’s a lost cause and the sooner we as a nation dispense with celebrating both in public places the better.

21 thoughts on “The True Meaning of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederate Flag

  1. Rob Baker

    I think Forrest is fine in a public place, it just depends on what aspect you want to focus on. The Civil War general or the man who changed over time in regards to race. Granted, it is doubtful a distinction would be made. People forget the change. Many heritage advocates remember him as a great leader of men who was always for civil rights (i.e. arming black men, kissing a black woman at the Pole Bearer’s meeting) or as you point out, a staunch racist who never backed down from a fight.

    But the former would be an interesting newspaper headline, would it not? “Southern advocates dedicated Nathan Bedford Forrest statue to recognize racism is evil, and change is ok”

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      But the former would be an interesting newspaper headline, would it not? “Southern advocates dedicated Nathan Bedford Forrest statue to recognize racism is evil, and change is ok”

      I won’t hold my breadth.

      Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      Rob, I wouldn’t look to the Pole Bearers’ speech as evidence that Forrest had fundamentally changed his views on race. It was a one-off, and both its tone and substance were highly specific to events in Memphis in 1875. It’s not a speech he would have made a year before, or a year later, or in another place.

      Reply
      1. Rob Baker

        You are going to have to elaborate. It is my understanding that Tennessee was well on its way to re-establishing its antebellum social order, black voters were disenfranchised through poll taxes, and racial tensions were heightened. Forrest’s speech in that context is powerful. The Pole Bearer’s posed no political threat and many Southern papers berated him for the speech afterward. It seems pretty evident that the Forrest of the KKK was not the Forrest two years prior to his death.

        Reply
    3. Bryan Cheeseboro

      Hi Rob,
      If it’s true, I’m more than willing to believe N. B. Forrest had a change of heart at the end of his life. I believe a person can repent of their sins and be forgiven through Jesus Christ. I think it’s absolutley wonderful if the man did that.

      But repentance does not mean a person can escape from a life-long legacy of bigotry, enslavement of other people, violence, terrorism and murder. Like it or not, Forrest will always be remembered for his crimes against humanity. That is the price his memory on this earth will pay throughout time for the things he did. I’m not trying to preach a sermon on this… but I simply disagree with the idea that confession means that the guilty are no longer ethically or morally responsible for the wrongs they did. If that were the case, then we should set free those people in prison who repent of the sins that got them there.

      Reply
      1. Rob Baker

        But repentance does not mean a person can escape from a life-long legacy of bigotry, enslavement of other people, violence, terrorism and murder.

        I did not imply otherwise. Human beings have a selective memory of our historical figures, and Americans especially have an exceptionalist perspective on what constitutes a “crime against humanity.” Forrest is a among good ‘Murican company in that respect.

        By the way, this also does not imply that I am condoning his actions or anyone else’s for that matter. The context of any monument is important. The same is true for a monument of Forrest.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          The context of any monument is important. The same is true for a monument of Forrest.

          Given how Forrest’s memory has been utilized already I find it difficult to imagine how any context is possible that does not invoke his close connection to the slave trade, Fort Pillow, and the Klan.

          Reply
          1. Rob Baker

            I’m not sure I follow. Forrest’s memory is usually one of Lost Cause nostalgia and states’ rights. Are you saying that a monument of Forrest needs to have that contextualization you mentioned?

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              No, I am simply suggesting that it’s very difficult to imagine a community in which a monument to Forrest is planned that would be willing to look beyond his connection to those things in his past mentioned in the last comment. Think about Selma’s response to a monument to Forrest’s military career. They see it as a monument to a Klan member and slave trader.

              Reply
    4. Michael Rodgers

      Rob Baker,
      The post was about a real-life killer today who led a hate-filled life and killed in a hate-crime fashion and targeted Jewish people (and by the way Kevin teaches at a Jewish school), not a hypothetical about whether or not there might sometime, somewhere be an appropriate place for a hypothetical (hmm, how would it be contextualized?) monument to Forrest. Three people are dead. I think you should apologize for insensitive threadjacking.
      Regards,
      Mike

      Reply
      1. Rob Baker

        Not sure how what I’ve said is insensitive or thread jacking. I asked questions, made statements, and received replies. But since you are obviously disturbed, I’ll refrain from commenting further.

        Reply
        1. Michael Rodgers

          I’m upset, not disturbed, and I’m giving you advice, not making demands. As Kevin said, you don’t need to apologize. Moreover, please do not refrain from commenting on anything you wish to comment on, in any manner you see fit.

          Reply
  2. Meg

    Did Forrest change over time? Maybe only to get more hateful–although his actions at Fort Pillow seem plenty full of hate already.

    Reply

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