The Ku Klux Klan Protests as Memphis Renames a City Park

Many white Southerns have cherished the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest -- a Confederate general and founding Klansman. But a new controversy reveals how much Civil War remembrance has changed.

forrest-top.jpgLeft: A statue of the general in Memphis's Forrest Park; right: Civil War reenactors gather at the park for Forrest's 190th birthday celebration (AP Images)

Earlier this month the city council in Memphis, Tennessee, voted to rename Forrest Park, a local site named in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Since Forrest's death in 1877, few names associated with the American Civil War have sparked more outrage among black Americans.

In contrast, white views of Forrest have long been mixed. "To many," wrote historian Court Carney, "he was the quintessential Confederate hero, whose rough-hewn, unschooled martial style reflected the virtues of the southern "plain folk"; others, in contrast, found him an ambiguous figure at best."

The decision to rename Forrest Park brought these polarities into the public eye. The Ku Klux Klan immediately organized a large protest rally to be held next month. The Sons of Confederate Veterans announced their own plans to protest the name change in "a gentlemanly fashion" but asked the Klan not to get involved. "There might be people who are opposed to the Klan that might turn it into a hostile situation," explained SCV spokesperson Lee Millar.

Forrest's controversial status can be traced to three distinct phases of his life. Born in 1821, he rose to become one of the wealthiest slave traders along the stretch of the Mississippi River from his home in Memphis to New Orleans. With the wealth accumulated on the backs of slaves, Forrest organized his own cavalry regiment for the Confederacy at the beginning of the war. By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of lieutenant general.

Forrest then distinguished himself in a number of small battles, but at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864, his men committed one of the worst atrocities of the war against U.S. Colored Troops. It is unclear whether Forrest issued the orders to massacre these men once they surrendered; however, it is likely that he knew what was taking place inside the fort.

Finally, in 1867, the Ku Klux Klan selected Forrest as its first Grand Wizard. Forrest served for a short period before losing interest, but during that time, the Klan and other white supremacy organizations committed ferocious acts of violence against newly freed slaves in an attempt to maintain antebellum social and racial norms.

Despite Forrest's involvement in the slave trade, the Fort Pillow massacre, and the Klan, Carney notes that popular memory of the general has been largely positive. Southerners have celebrated his humble beginnings, his prowess and bravery on the battlefield, and his defense of the rural South against encroachment by Northern industry, as well as his protection of plain folk and advocacy of civic virtue.

At a time when Southerners felt their way of life being threatened, Forrest became a convenient symbol of white supremacy and "massive resistance."

Only on a few occasions has the white community in Memphis highlighted Forrest's connection to a past steeped in racism. And each time, those discussions have centered on the park named in his honor. Forrest Park was dedicated in May 1905, when 30,000 white Memphians took part in the unveiling of an equestrian statue to the general. The park also contained the remains of the general and his wife.

The ceremony came at a turbulent time in the city's history. Its economy had been depressed, and its racial composition had shifted following a yellow-fever outbreak in 1878: Memphis lost a sizable number of white elites, and the black community became roughly half the population. Meanwhile, by the 1890s, the city was experiencing sharp uptick in racial strife, due to an influx of rural farmers who, according to Carney, "were less racially tolerant than their urban contemporaries."

In 1901, Memphis hosted the annual United Confederate Veterans Reunion, and that same year, local papers began openly celebrating Forrest's connection to the Klan. The unveiling of the Forrest monument four years later coincided with the publication of Thomas Dixon's bestselling book, The Clansman.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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