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.