Maybe the Sons of the Confederacy are right. We should not rewrite history. But that requires us to write it right in the first place.
Let’s put the names of real heroes on our parks and monuments, such as nationally prominent Memphian Ida B. Wells, fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women’s rights advocate, journalist, and speaker. Or Joseph Harris, the first African-American to own property in Shelby County, in 1834 (after first buying his wife and baby daughter). Or Ed Shaw, a target of the Ku Klux Klan in 1868, elected to the City Council in 1873 and served as wharfmaster in 1874, making him the highest paid official at the time.
Ida B. Wells, A True American Hero
True Southern Heroes
Sometimes, the emotion attached to defending the Confederacy and trying to whitewash its history make it difficult to realize that it ended 150 years ago. But most frustrating of all is that some people cling to the names of the Confederacy’s beloved but minimize the names of heroes cut from the most gallant cloth of all.
These were not men and women who were fighting to keep their property. They were property.
These were not men and women fighting for their beloved heritage. They were forbidden to even whisper about their real heritage.
These were not men and women of privilege. All they wanted was the privilege to be free.
It’s hard to understand why the defenders of Confederate parks and flats are so hardened that they cannot hear the obvious message that these African-Americans are the true Southern heroes. These are the Memphians with historical meaning, Memphians driven by a simple dream for America to live up to its founding creed.
They deserve to have their names on parks, monuments, and statues, because they are the people who deserve to be remembered, honored and revered by us as a city.
Battles Known For Their Brevity
Instead, two years ago, we got a tombstone-like marker erected by a bunch of white guys, replete with Confederate flags and even a Rebel uniform, at Forrest Park. That’s why it was obvious that City of Memphis Chief Administrative Officer George Little made the right decisions when he ordered removed in the face of demonstrations by the local death cult.
It’s tempting to suggest that people honoring American traitors in this day and time need interventions, because for some reason known only to them, these Rebel rousers find it impossible to let go of the past, embrace the present, and prepare for a better future.
Here’s the thing: Memphis’ failure to become a bastion of the Confederacy led to it avoiding the destruction that befell Atlanta, Richmond, and several other Southern cities. Memphis emerged from the Civil War largely unscathed physically and its businesses were reasonably intact.
The Battle of Memphis was one of the briefest and most inept naval battles in American history, but the Confederate navy was demolished. In its wake, Memphis became a magnet for Northern merchants. When General Ulysses S. Grant took command of Memphis for a short period, and, after observing the smuggling carried out here, he said that the disloyalty of Memphians to their own Rebel cause was striking.
The so-called Second Battle of Memphis took place August 21, 1864, at 4 a.m. It was a raid led by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader and plantation owner, Ku Klux Klan leader, and the antagonist for which the city park was named and where he is buried. His raid was largely a tactical failure and only lasted a few hours, and more than anything, it led to the Union beefing up its forces in Memphis until military rule ended on July 3, 1865.
It’s A Park, Not A Cemetery
At least when it came to Forrest, Memphis Confederate die-hards had a body in 1904 that it could drag from the cemetery and plant in a city park. Finally, a couple of years ago, we stripped Forrest’s name from the park, but that leaves one final thing to do – to return him back to Elmwood Cemetery.
Dr. Aram Goudsouzian, director of the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis, summed it up well: “No one is saying we should erase Nathan Bedford Forrest from our history books – our understanding of history. But a public park is not a history book. It’s a public place with a monument that suggests this person stands for values that we celebrate as a community.”
Dr. Goudsouzian, one of 45 faculty and graduate students at University of Memphis who signed a letter supporting the park renaming, made the point that “with rare exceptions,” professional historians find the celebration of General Forrest “distasteful.” In addition, he punctured a hole in the naïve argument that General Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan was a social club and that he was sensitive to the changing roles of black Southerners. Rather, the professor said the Klan was a terrorist group whose purpose was to prevent full citizenship for African-Americans.
In his history of Memphis, Cotton Row to Beale Street, Dr. Robert Sigafoos wrote: “Forrest bore the title of Supreme Grand Wizard. He is believed to have personally directed night riders in terror raids in West Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas…He was particularly hostile to changes wrought by Reconstruction and reacted forcefully.”
Sending Forrest Where He Belongs
There are other people who are in charge of marketing the city who think Confederate controversies have been damaging to the Memphis brand. It’s hard for us to understand how it is anything but that, because a city devoted to being inclusive and one that is dramatically diverse s this one seems to us to be the best message we could be sending out right now, particularly as we try to attract 25-34 year-old college-educated talent, particularly African-American talent, which is now being sucked up by Atlanta, Charlotte, and even Nashville.
Little more than a decade ago, the Memphis Talent Magnet report cautioned against the negative impact of a Memphis brand that relies on photographs of riverboats and other stuck-in-time images that populate websites and that do nothing to attract young, college-educated workers looking for progressive, vibrant cities.
So, for more reasons than just historical accuracy, it was simply time for Confederate parks to go the way of the Confederacy itself, and now it’s also time for Nathan Bedford Forrest to go back to Elmwood Cemetery. If Governor Bill Haslam can advocate for the removal of a bust of Forrest from the state capitol, surely we can remove his corpse from a city park.
Thank you SCM.
I would ask that public officials from the Republican party lead the effort to move the grave and statue. Show us what stands at the core of the party of Lincoln.
Perhaps the statue one evening could simply “disappear.” I’m sure there are contractors in the area with the necessary equipment. I’ve also found it contradictory that many Southerners who feel so strongly about the United States, so often advocate for the Confederacy; that has always felt a bit treasonous.
You are so correct. Remove the statue and remains to Elmwood cemetery. I do think that the former Confederate Park on front street should be Civil War Park with historic markers for both Union and Confederate armies like Shiloh.
I am a son of the South having grown up in northern Mississippi. My grandmother took me to “Gone with the Wind” in1954 when I was 10 years old. Thereafter I became aware of reconstruction and “carpetbaggers”. I felt sorry for the South, but I didn’t embrace the “lost cause”. I still feel sorry for the South now because it can’t seem to throw off the yoke of “Jim Crow”.
I had ancesdors who fought in the Civil War and I feel a certain compassion for their valiant efforts. However, they are long gone and they were traitors to the union. It is time to put them in museums and cemeteries.
While we are at it lets chat about the Jefferson Davis statue downtown.
But lets replace these monuments with statues that do reflect who we are as a city. Great cities honor great men and women who have had an impact on its residents. Think of great writers, artists, statesmen (we clearly honor our musicians already) who have made an impact.
I think an Eggleston or a Mandela monument would work nicely thank you.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
Right, right, and right. And I might add, why did the good white citizens of Memphis in 1904 not allow the black citizens of Memphis to dedicate a park to all the Southerners and residents of the Memphis area who fought for the Union? You know, the THOUSANDS who volunteered for the USCT in Memphis during the war. Aren’t black people Southerners, too? Or is “Southern Pride” really “White Pride?” The modern KKK is actually right about that one….
What is really amazing is how strong the racism is with this current batch of Sons of Confederate Veterans.These white folks fail to realize that Lt.General Nathan Bedford Forrest monument belongs to Black Memphians as well as White Memphians .Over 100,000 black men fought for the Confederacy with the promise of freedom after the war.Lt.General Forrest had Black Confederate soldiers fighting along side of him.Since this statue was erected, Black homeowners and Black business citizens have paid property taxes,which entitles Black citizens equal say,involving a Memphis,Public Park.What Lee Millar and his group are doing is “Taxation without Representation.Blacks opposing the monument have never wanted but, what is required under the State of Tennessee Burial law.Confederates are lying and distorting the truth.It was the Confederates who discrated his grave site in 1904.We only desire him and his wife returned to the original place of internment.As for the statue,it is my opinion,that the “Pink Palace” is the best place to place, the General and his horse “King Phillip”.Lt.General Nathan Bedford Forrest statue could generate income for the City of Memphis from his thousands of admirers. And this time we’ll make sure he is facing toward the North,and not the mistake the Confederates made of facing him toward the south.As for the park,The University of Memphis can used that prime real estate for University business and generate tax revenue,jobs and education for the Memphis Mid-town area.Black and White citizens in opposition to the statue, are progressive, White and some Black citizens who support the statue are regressive and are tarnishing the image of Memphis,Tn.This is a “win-win for Memphis,and it’s citizens.
The problem is the uneducated are the ones who are making the decisions. From a strictly military view, Forrest revolutionized Calvary tactics, with many of his innovations in warfare lasting well into the 20th century. Yes he was a member of the original KKK, and after only a year as Grand Wizard, in January 1869, faced with an ungovernable membership employing methods that seemed increasingly counterproductive, Forrest issued KKK General Order Number One: “It is therefore ordered and decreed, that the masks and costumes of this Order be entirely abolished and destroyed.” By the end of his life, Forrest’s racial attitudes would evolve — in 1875, he advocated for the admission of blacks into law school — and he lived to fully renounce his involvement with the all-but-vanished Klan. A new, different, and much worse Klan would emerge, 35 years after Forrest’s death, in the wake of D.W. Griffith’s revolutionary 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, a reactionary screed with a racialist brief that had been expanded to include Catholics and immigrants of all kinds. The second Klan was never restricted to the South; its goals had nothing to do with Forrest’s vision of a restored Dixie. This is the Klan we are most familiar with,
Isn’t this exactly the person we wish to look to? The general who was indeed a racist, but learned the errors of such views and sought to remedy the backwards ideas of his fellow men? It is the old, let he who is without sin argument. Yes he picked the wrong side. Yes he was racist just like almost all other white men at the time. But through reflection he grew to despise his earlier actions and aleviate the suffering his actions had caused. It is a story of a great general who was a misguided man and yet found a way to attempt to redeem himself. Isn’t that what we would hope to happen to all racists? Rather than erase him, we should use him as a story of how even those with the coldest hearts can learn to love his fellow man.
Mike Lansing: That feels an awful lot like trying to line up the facts to support your preconceived opinion. If they want to teach about him in military schools, so be it. But there’s no reason to hold him up as representing the values we care about. And moving his body to a cemetery doesn’t keep anyone from saying what you just said – but nothing you said makes him worthy of public ground.
The once-hardened soldier became a born-again Christian, and the ferocity that previously had marked his personality was transformed into a mild-mannered, kindly, meekness as he called for the KKK to disband, and spoke out in favor of black civil rights. – See more at: http://columbiadailyherald.com/opinion/letters-editor/case-nathan-bedford-forrest#sthash.Ksq6txy9.dpuf
All that is merely footnotes to a life that was spent buying and selling people, killing people without mercy, and leading KKK. We are suspicious of the rosy portraits of him as if that somehow offsets a lifetime of evil doing. We hope they are true, but even if they are, that does nothing to justify honoring him in a city park, in our opinion.