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.”
Continue reading “Why a Monument To Forrest in Memphis in 1905?”
Today it is being reported that a committee has been organized to determine the new name of Forrest Park and two other parks named in honor of the Confederacy in Memphis, Tennessee.
Members of the committee include:
- Council members Bill Boyd and Harold Collins, Co-chairmen
- Reverend Keith Norman, Sr. Pastor of First Baptist Broad, current president of the NAACP
- Jimmy Ogle, current president of the Shelby County Historical Commission
- Larry Smith, Deputy Director of Parks & Neighborhoods for the City of Memphis
- Michael Robinson, Chairman of African & African American Studies, LeMoyne Owen College [website indicates that he is a professor of social work]
- Dr. Douglas Cupples, longtime professor, Department of History, University of Memphis
As the report indicates, notably absent is any representation from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is a huge mistake. Yes, spokesmen such as Lee Millar have made some absurd claims about Forrest, but the SCV is an important stakeholder in this discussion and their perspective deserves to be heard. The Memphis City Council should embrace every opportunity to openly discuss the relevant historical, social, and racial issues surrounding these public parks and their continued maintenance. Keeping the SCV out of these discussions will only fuel suspicion and outrage among a certain demographic. I for one would love to see the SCV make the case for their preferred position to the entire city of Memphis.
With this latest news it looks like the city council has taken a giant leap backward.
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.
Letter-to-the-editor in Memphis’s The Commercial Appeal:
I can’t express how much I agree with the writer of the Feb. 7 letter “No honors for traitors.” I, too, am a native white Southerner and Memphian. My great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. That’s my family’s history; it’s not something about which I boast. He never bought or sold human beings, as Nathan Bedford Forrest did, but he fought against the United States to divide this country. It’s done and cannot be changed. I don’t know much about this man, but I do know he came back from the war and became a minister. Maybe the war changed him, as many claim that Forrest changed.
It doesn’t alter the fact that both these men fought for the right to hold humans as property, and were willing to split the country to see to it that slavery was extended into the new territories. Don’t give me the bunk about “states’ rights.” The South has a miserable history of treating African-Americans with cruelty and injustice, decades after the South lost the war…
It should come as no surprise that the Ku Klux Klan is planning a rally to protest the renaming of Forrest Park in Memphis, Tennessee. Organizers expect thousands to attend. If this protest does materialize with substantial numbers it will present something of a conundrum for Southern heritage advocates who believe that Forrest’s significance to American history can and ought to be understood independently of his role as a wealthy slave trader, commanding general at Fort Pillow and early organizer of the Klan.
Heritage advocates might find it difficult to align themselves with the Klan even though they both hope to achieve the same goal. They can also stand with the majority of the city of Memphis and the rest of the country, but in doing so it seems to me that they assist in making the case for the change of name. The Klan intends to celebrate its heritage and it is going to be a tough sell to argue that they don’t have history on their side.