The Desecration of a Confederate Cemetery

Those of you following me on Twitter know that I am in the middle of a 5-day civil rights journey with 13 high school students. We started off in Atlanta on Sunday and have since spent time in Montgomery and Selma. Today we travel to Birmingham to focus specifically on the state’s criminal justice system.

We are also exploring historical sites that help us to better understand the current battle over Civil War memory and race. While in Selma yesterday we spent time at the Confederate cemetery to look at the monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest and its relationship to increased black political action as well as the focus on civil rights history in the community.

Students at Forrest Monument (2019)

The students were very interested in the site and wanted to understand why of all the people they could have honored, the Friends of Forrest chose a slave trader, and Ku Klux Klan leader. Thankfully, the organization makes it very clear why they chose to place a monument to Forrest in the center of a Confederate cemetery through a number of markers. Reading it clearly reveals that it has nothing to do with history and commemorating the dead and everything to do with racial hatred.

I wanted the group to understand the cemetery as a site of mourning in the postwar period. The monument dedicated in 1879 and the graves themselves offer a number of windows into the scale of death in the South, the work of the Ladies Memorial Association and the importance of remembrance for the white community. I so wanted the group to be able to empathize and understand this history apart from the current controversy.

That is impossible in its current state. The Friends of Forrest have not only distorted the very history they claim to cherish, they have desecrated the site itself with their historical markers and monument to Forrest. It reflects the views of a reactionary and downright racist group of people who will never move beyond the Lost Cause or accept the reality of black political action and even black citizenship.

They can’t even claim to be Americans as Confederate veterans themselves did during the postwar period. Visitors will see the Stars and Bars and Confederate battle flag flying over the Confederate statue in the center of the cemetery. Rather than fly a United States flag on a nearby pole they chose to fly another Confederate flag.

I am usually able to keep my focus on history when leading tours through Confederate cemeteries, but it was impossible not to vocalize my frustration and disgust with the site with the group.

I am also certain that Confederate veterans themselves would be disgusted with how the Friends of Forrest have chosen to commemorate and honor their memory.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

11 comments… add one
  • Louis Drew May 22, 2019 @ 7:31

    Mr. Levin , wondering what the additional markers read. Also, I’d enjoy hearing more about the students and what they had to say. Thank you for all of your work and scholarly effort…

  • Reggie Bartlett May 22, 2019 @ 14:16

    I don’t see a desecration here.

    Seeing as to the memorial makes note of Forrest’s defense of Selma in March 1865, a battle the he intentionally made very difficult for Abel Streight, as well as his major campaigns.

    Seems to me you have an ax to grind rather than stating facts.

    • Robert L Hand May 22, 2019 @ 21:27

      Reggie Bartlett, you are exactly right, sir. Thank you, and G-d bless you!

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2019 @ 2:03

      The historical markers make it very clear that the monument was placed in direct response to the election of the city’s black mayor. It has nothing to do with the soldiers buried in the cemetery.

      • Billy Bearden May 23, 2019 @ 5:15

        Kevin,
        That Forrest Monument has existed since 2000, long before any black Mayor was elected.

        It was originally placed with permission at the Selma Smitherman museum.

        It came under attack by Rose Sanders, wife of Alabama state senator Hank Sanders.
        A new Mayor was elected (1st black) and he cancelled the agreement for the Monument at the museum, so Friends of Forrest moved it to Live Oak Cemetery.
        Mrs Sanders and associates attacked it again, subsequently attacking construction workers who were cleaning up the cemetery.

        A few police reports, a couple of arrests, a lengthy trial, and a hefty verdict against Mrs Sanders in favor of Friends of Forrest.

        The epilogue of this story is that had Mrs Sanders, her associates, and the first black mayor simply left things alone and never harassed anybody or attacked the monument, it would still be in the backyard of the Smitherman Museum where it was originally located.

        • Kevin Levin May 24, 2019 @ 4:32

          They had every right to protest a monument to Forrest in Selma. That you believe his image is appropriate anywhere is a testament to your character. Like I said, that monument has absolutely nothing to do with the men in that cemetery.

        • Al Mackey May 24, 2019 @ 16:46

          James Perkins Jr., the first Black Mayor of Selma, was elected on September 12, 2000. The Forrest monument in Selma was unveiled in October of 2000, not “long before any black Mayor was elected.”

          https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-oct-22-mn-40286-story.html

          • Billy Bearden May 28, 2019 @ 7:58

            Kevin and Al,
            Are you really claiming that because Mayor Perkins was elected September 12, that a group of folks in Selma got together, founded Friends of Forrest, decided the best way to show displeasure at his election was to erect a 3 ton monument, get a bronze bust from a man in New England, raise funds to create it, put it on a special cement slab poured with city’s permission from the previous Mayor, erect and dedicate the monument on Smitherman Museum property per agreement from the previous Mayor, and did all this in 18 days by October 1st?

            • Kevin Levin May 28, 2019 @ 9:30

              Read the marker in the cemetery. The nice thing about the Friends of Forrest is that they explain what it’s all about. You don’t need to believe anything I say here.

    • Msb May 23, 2019 @ 12:43

      Does it mention murdering prisoners at Fort Pillow?

      • Kevin Levin May 24, 2019 @ 4:30

        Noooooooo.

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