In Memphis, A Battle Over The First KKK Leader’s Statue
Memorials and the radical right: the descendants of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest seek to honor their forefather’s violent racism.
Mark Potok is an expert on the American radical right who was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights organization for 20 years and is now a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Updated July 12, 2018: Tennessee Governor Bill Lee proclaimed July 13th as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in the state to celebrate the confederate general and first KKK’s national leader.
So now the battle over memory of the American Civil War has come to this: The descendants of the Ku Klux Klan’s first national leader have filed a lawsuit complaining that removing his statue from a Tennessee park was a “desecration” that has brought them “embarrassment, humiliation and mental anguish.”
The plaintiffs — five great-great-grandsons of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, along with Lee Millar, a well-known propagandist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans heritage group — want the return of the bronze equestrian Forrest statue taken from a Memphis park in late 2017. They also want money to move it to a place of their choosing, and offered last year to settle with the city for a mere $30 million. The city refused, calling the demand “outlandish.”
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That wasn’t the only thing that was outlandish, claims of desecration and mental anguish notwithstanding: The man the plaintiffs feel has been dishonored led the Klan through its most violent period, ending only when black freedmen and allied Republicans had been disenfranchised. He was an apparent war criminal who presided over the 1864 massacre of surrendering black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. And, before the war, he became a millionaire as the owner of a sprawling Memphis slaveyard that was nationally infamous for its brutality.
The Memphis legal saga began in the fall of 2017 in the aftermath of a white supremacist’s massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. The slaughter, carried out by a Confederate battle flag enthusiast, led states, cities and major companies to take down or stop trafficking in Confederate symbols. For the first time, a major reevaluation of the Civil War’s meaning was underway.
In Tennessee, it didn’t go easily. In 2013, reacting to Memphis’ earlier decision to rename parks with Confederate-themed names, the state legislature had passed a law (the “basic text” of which was reportedly written by Millar) requiring officials to get permission from the Tennessee Historical Society before memorials like what was formerly known as Forrest Park could be altered. Memphis officials asked, but were turned down. But then city lawyers found a loophole, selling the park to a new nonprofit, which then took down the Forrest statue and moved it into storage. The SCV and others sued, and the courts have ordered that the statue not be moved again while the case proceeds.
It’s not clear how the courts will ultimately rule — the plaintiffs in the SCV case have described the city’s maneuver as a “sham” meant to evade the law. But in an arguably more important way, the entire saga comes down to Forrest.
For Millar, there is nothing bad to say about the man.
In an interview about a year ago, Millar denied that Forrest was “even a member” of the Klan — although in the same breath, he said Forrest later “ordered it disbanded” because “he was upset at the way the Klan had become violent.” He went on to say the Klan “[h]ad nothing to do with black and white,” restored “law and order” in various places, and spread through the South “just to fight martial law.” Forrest, he added, was “loved by many Memphians — black and white.”
Some Memphians surely did adore Forrest, but probably not many black ones. A Civil War newspaper account described whippings at Forrest’s slaveyard where four slaves held the victim outstretched in the air while Forrest personally administered the bullwhip. Women were stripped naked and lashed with a leather thong dipped in salt water. After the war, many freedmen recalled Forrest breaking up their families by selling parents and children to separate purchasers.
A contemporary advertisement for Forrest’s Negro Depot, located at 87 Adams Street in downtown Memphis, boasted that its jail could hold 300 prisoners and that it was “daily receiving … fresh supplies of likely Young Negroes.”
At Fort Pillow, Forrest demanded that the 580 men inside the fort, most of them black Union soldiers, surrender or face the consequences. Later accounts from soldiers on both sides said the Unionists initially resisted, but were massacred later when they tried to surrender. Several remembered hearing Confederate officers saying Forrest had ordered them “to kill the last God damn one of them.” One Confederate sergeant later wrote to his family that he had “tried to stop the butchery … but General Forrest ordered them shot like dogs.”
Millar’s claim about the Klan is equally bogus. In fact, Forrest was the first national leader of the terrorist group, and he led it through its most violent — and successful — period. It was only disbanded when its aims were realized.
The truth is that Nathan Bedford Forrest, while undeniably one of the greatest cavalrymen in history, was a brutal thug who frequently personally shot Confederate deserters. And he was widely known for his violent racism.
Forrest’s defenders claim that Forrest became a great advocate for racial peace after the war, giving an 1875 speech in which he told a black audience that he had “been misunderstood by your race” and promising to “elevate” them. The quotes are accurate — and were spoken at the very same time that Forrest moved into convict leasing, a business one historian called “worse than slavery.”
Forrest’s descendants are no doubt right to be embarrassed and humiliated by the ruckus around their forebear — not because his statue or gravesite are being desecrated, but because Forrest was such a hateful and despicable man.
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