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Don’t Erase Nathan Bedford Forrest From U.S. History


In 1994, Tom Hanks gave us a loveable character that has ever since helped inform popular opinion about a civil war general: Nathan Bedford Forrest. In his role as Forrest Gump, he told us, “Now, when I was a baby, Momma named me after the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest… She said we was related to him in some way. And, what he did was, he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They’d all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They’d even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that’s how I got my name. Forrest Gump. Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.”

“Forrest Gump” is more than 20 years old now, but this is news again after the shooting and murders of church at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina. AME is one of the oldest black churches in the United States, and the shooter made despicable racist statements as part of the attack.

In the wake of the murders, businesses such as Apple, eBay, Sears, Amazon, and Wal-Mart have begun pulling Civil War games and Confederate flags. Memphis, Tennessee Mayor A.C. Wharton is jumping on the trend of wiping all traces of the Civil War from people’s lives by calling for a park in his community to remove a statue of General Forrest and to have all traces of the real man removed.

The KKK Resurfaces

Because of the shooting, the KKK is also back in the news, and reportedly increasing efforts at recruitment. The Klan has a planned protest July 18 at the South Carolina capitol. The group is protesting “the Confederate flag being took down for all the wrong reasons,” says James Spears, the Great Titan of the Pelham, North Carolina, chapter of the KKK. “It’s part of white people’s culture.”

Because of the shooting, the KKK is also back in the news, and reportedly increasing efforts at recruitment.

Spears didn’t limit himself to just the issue of the Confederate flag, and his views on where Dylann Roof, the AME shooter, went wrong are disturbing and appalling. “I feel sorry for the boy because of his age and I think he picked the wrong target. A better target for him would have been these gang-bangers, running around rapping, raping, and stealing.”

The fight over the general’s grave highlights the mounting tension between the Klan and cities across the country. The mayor of Memphis, one of the driving forces to remove the statue from the park, has tied the Klan and its actions to his desire for removing history from the park. “I despise whatever the Confederacy stood for,” Wharton said. “This is not just an ordinary monument. This is a monument to a man who was the avowed founder of the organization that has as its purpose the intimidation, the oppression of black folks.”

The KKK isn’t the only party passionate about the presence of the Confederate flag and the history of the Civil War. Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina capitol building and cut down the flag. She’s been arrested and is facing jail time over her desire to remove the flag. When asked about a recent poll that suggested most people see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, Newsome said it shows people need to be better educated about the history of the Civil War. She further clarified her position as, “It’s a moment for society to do a gut check of our values.”

What You Don’t Know about General Forrest

Let’s talk about those values and that history. General Forrest is an interesting study in humanity. His role in the Civil War and afterwards in forming the Ku Klux Klan are evidence of the great evil humanity is capable of. Forrest and his men slaughtered black soldiers after they surrendered—a war crime and act of hate. Forrest’s call to those considering joining the war makes clear his feelings about the conflict, “I wish none but those who desire to be actively engaged. COME ON BOYS, IF YOU WANT A HEAP OF FUN AND TO KILL SOME YANKEES.” He was reportedly the first grand wizard of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.

We should absolutely celebrate and laud someone who went from the depths of evil and hatred to calling for equality.

Forrest’s story doesn’t end there, though. The beginning doesn’t always clue us in to the end of it, and this is the case with Forrest. Near the end of his life, he appeared at an early civil-rights convention of the Order of the Pole Bearers, right in Memphis. His speech called for equality and healing.

“I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.”

Perhaps the Memphis City Council and the activists using this tragedy to further their goals need a reminder that people are complex and capable of both evil and good. A city council member has said, “This is a time gone by; a time passed. A time that, yes, is historical in our city but it’s not a time to be honored.”

The opposite is true. We should absolutely celebrate and laud someone who went from the depths of evil and hatred to calling for equality. Perhaps missing from the discussion of lawmakers and elected officials in Memphis is this: in his later years, Forrest became a Christian. He practiced forgiveness and sought it for himself.

Are There No Second Chances in Our Society?

Mollie Hemingway lays out a good path for dealing with Confederate flags while not erasing history, and why it’s important: “Taking down Confederate flags from public positions of honor is right and good (and long overdue). Revising history by removing evidence of the Confederacy from museums, stores, public grounds, games, and the private square is actually at odds with that worthy goal. We must learn the history of the Confederacy so that we may remain an undivided union, focused on self-government and liberty. Even more narrowly, consider that two armies fought at Gettysburg. Removing the Confederates from the equation dishonors the Union forces who won a decisive victory and caused a major turning point in a war. Their bravery and sacrifice has effected each and every one of us. This legendary battle deserves to be told accurately and honestly. Leave the moral panics aside.”

Pretending that people are one-dimensional and only capable of only good or evil is revisionist and short-sighted. It’s foolish. Keep the statue of Forrest, but use it as an opportunity to teach about his history—all of it. He led forces in the Civil War and killed people just because of their race. He incited others to violence and fighting and was a feared force against the Union Army.

But he also realized the error of his ways and changed. Isn’t that ultimately the lesson we do want our children to learn? Removing traces of him from Memphis removes the chance to teach equality and work to end racism. Let’s take this tragedy in Charleston and use it not as an opportunity for reactionary policies, but for real education about fullness of history. Keep Forrest in the park.