Interpreting the Bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest

I have no idea how the bust of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest will be interpreted once it is relocated later today to the Tennessee State Museum. What I do know is that any interpretation will need to look beyond the Jim Crow era.

It is this context that frames the vast majority of Confederate monuments that have been removed in recent years. Yes, an interpretation of Forrest’s history will need to address his role as a slave trader, Confederate general responsible (Fort Pillow Massacre), and Klan leader.

In the case of the Forrest bust, however, it is not the Jim Crow era that is relevant, but the post civil rights era of the 1970s. The resolution for installing the bust passed in 1973 and it was dedicated on November 5, 1978.

The relevant context here is the following:

The post civil rights era (1970s) in Tennessee. The motivations of TN state Senator and Sons of Confederate Veterans member Douglas Henry (Dem-Nashville) and Lanier Merrit, who headed up this project. The involvement of the SCV in fundraising activities.

Most importantly, any interpretation will need to acknowledge that African Americans protested the dedication of the Forrest bust from the very beginning through organizations such as Black Tennesseans for Action. In 1979 the bust was damaged by protesters.

I don’t know whether the Tennessee State Museum is up to the challenge or whether they will be allowed to do their work w/o interference. Even with the removal of the Forrest bust state leaders have demonstrated more than once that they have no interest in facing this history.

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