Over the past several weeks, our state and nation have been hurting. We are in need of healing. However, healing will not come from words — words have become less and less meaningful in the plight for racial equality. If we are serious about creating a Tennessee for everyone, we need action. There is no better place to start than removing the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from a place of honor in our beautiful state Capitol.
My Republican Party, however, does not want to heal our state. This may be unfair, but 11 Republicans voting in committee against removing Forrest’s likeness only serves to perpetuate the stigma that Republicans do not care for African Americans. We have a long way to go in the fight for racial equality, and the easiest thing we should do is remove a symbol of hatred and terror. Why are House Republicans hellbent on protecting an avowed racist and slave trader who joined the Confederate Army solely to protect slavery, then, once defeated on the battlefield, cowardly donned a hood with former compatriots to terrorize black Tennesseans during reconstruction? Is this the legacy we want?
If we Republicans are going to champion ourselves as the “Party of Lincoln,” then we better act like it and work to heal our state and nation. If not, it is time to retire the use of that moniker. If we are to be the “Party of Grant,” then we should fight for equality and defeat racism. If we cannot do that then we have betrayed our founding. If we cannot defeat a cold, insignificant bust placed antagonistically by a racist, revisionist Tennessee Assembly Democratic Party majority in the 1970s, then I fear our days are numbered as a party.
Maybe our Republican state legislators are unaware of Forrest’s awful legacy. He was responsible for one of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War at Fort Pillow, which was the massacre of hundreds of black Union troops in Lauderdale County, Tennessee. By any standard, except for the Confederacy’s, he would have been held responsible and court-martialed, not promoted as he ultimately would be less than a year later. After the war, Forrest became a terrorist by founding the Ku Klux Klan and expanding its influence across the South. Forrest led the KKK in killing and terrorizing black and white supporters of the Republican Party, including murdering more than 1,000 African Americans in Louisiana to successfully suppress black voter turnout. Is this the hill our party is willing to die on?
It is no secret the Lost Cause movement has certainly framed the Civil War much differently than its realities. But, let’s be clear: the Civil War was about slavery, period. Don’t take my word for it, just read the Confederate Constitution. The protection of slavery, specifically those of “African race” is enshrined in its founding document. The South did not secede because of “states’ rights.”
Southern states long had used the power of the federal government to trample states’ rights to protect the institution of slavery or expand its power over individuals. This is evident in the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act and even earlier in the removal of Native Americans in Southern states.
Maybe I can even forgive my fellow Tennesseans from Middle and West Tennessee, where its peoples largely sided with the Confederacy, for supporting Forrest’s place in our Capitol. I am sure the thought of one’s ancestors fighting to keep people enslaved is almost too abhorrent to reconcile, and the revisionist history of Southern states protecting their sovereignty is a romantic, albeit false, vision. And, I know that many of those same legislators are against the barbarism of slavery practiced by militant Islamic groups in the Middle East and North Africa and the forced labor camps of China and North Korea. These are not bad people, just on the wrong side of history. However, we must recognize the Confederacy fought for this same type of bondage.
Moreover, it seems our East Tennessee delegation is largely out of step with their ancestors and ignorant to the important role East Tennesseans played in keeping Tennessee largely in Union control, eventually becoming the first state readmitted to the U.S. East Tennessee voted overwhelming against secession and, unsuccessfully, petitioned to form its own state much like West Virginia. Many in our East Tennessee delegation more than likely had ancestors who supported or served in the Union Army and were, like my family, abolitionists. The Confederate Army was cruel to East Tennesseans: It disallowed free speech, confiscated guns, conscripted men and boys into service against their will to fight for a cause they did not believe in, and carried out extra-judicial killings of Union sympathizers. This is anti-American.
Forrest supported all of it. He is responsible for the death and maiming of hundreds of Tennesseans, black and white. He was present at the Battle of Chickamauga that unsuccessfully sought to subjugate Chattanooga, take control of Knoxville, and, ultimately, Blount County and East Tennessee. After the war, while he failed to torment East Tennessee with the KKK during Reconstruction, our brothers and sisters in Middle and West Tennessee lived under a reign of terror from the klan. What other mass murderer of her own citizens would Tennessee recognize today? This is hate, not heritage.
Nevertheless, I do not believe Forrest’s bust should simply be thrown away or melted down. His memory should be kept alive in a museum, much like Stalin, Mao or Hitler. It is important to remember evil men and their deeds so that ours and future generations may learn from such atrocities. Should we erase them from history, we would be doomed to repeat these horrors.
So the responsibility is on us, as Republicans, and you, Bill Lee, as our governor, to rid ourselves of Forrest once and for all. It is time to bury the Confederacy and Lost Cause movement. It is time to finish what our party forebearers begun in fighting to keep our most sacred Union whole. Yet, it was not just about keeping states together with a common national border. It was — and still is — about uniting as a people. By removing Forrest’s bust, we would show seriousness about bridging the chasm that currently divides us. We would show that Forrest’s likeness, which has been revered by the Ku Klux Klan in both the 19th and 20th centuries, is incompatible with Tennessee values and that bigotry is no longer tolerated in our state.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Mr. Lee, tear down this Forrest bust!