I am heartened to see so much engagement with my Op-Ed last week advocating the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Tennessee state Capitol and placing it in a museum. The number of people who have shared the article, called or texted in support is humbling. Even Republican state House candidates in Knoxville over the weekend came out in support of removing the bust. Thank you, Eddie Mannis, Gina Oster and Patti Bounds. You are on the right side of history.
In fact, I believe there are more people who share this opinion who are being underserved by our state’s leadership. I see you. It gives me a lot of hope for our future, while we all must hold the line for now.
Nevertheless, there are others who do not share this view. The Daily Times published a response to my Op-Ed from David Jones, who saw my article reposted on social media. This is the debate I want with people who are willing to defend the grotesqueness of someone like Forrest.
It is important to have this open conversation so we can push back on the revisionist history that has been promulgated by the Lost Cause Movement and digested by generations of gullible Southerners — some whose family fought for the Union and abhorred slavery — who claim the Confederacy is heritage not hate.
The Confederacy lasted just barely more than four years. What heritage is in that? The German Reich lasted three times as long, had better military commanders (still studied today as Jones claims as justification for keeping Forrest’s bust), and shared the Confederate philosophy of the subjugation and murder of its citizens deemed by them as subhuman. Yet, aside from an extreme minority, there is no popularly held opinion that Nazism is somehow part of German heritage today.
So, yes, I am in awe of Jones’ defense of a mass murderer, racist and traitor, which says more about him than me. Perhaps he has remained willfully ignorant to Forrest’s depravity simply because of his supposed, although debatable, military prowess. Certainly Forrest’s massacring of defenseless combatants after their surrender seems to push back against that opinion.
Forrest has only been deified in the 20th century because of his association with the Ku Klux Klan, otherwise he would have had a bust placed in the Capitol long before the late 1970s, if he was so important. Moreover, perhaps Jones is unaware of Tennessee’s history in the Civil War and that the allegiance of East Tennessee, where he now lives, was overwhelmingly with the Union (69% voted against secession in East Tennessee; more than 80% in Blount County) and had a strong abolition movement long before the Civil War.
And, while he has not pointed out any inaccuracy in my article, he has attempted to whitewash Forrest’s legacy with the same repeated lies told by the Lost Cause movement for more than 100 years. President Woodrow Wilson was a staunch opponent of this movement even though he was an admirer of the Confederacy and whose parents owned slaves and were passionate supporters of the Confederate ideology. Wilson is not a credible historical voice detached from the awfulness of the Confederacy. In fact, he is arguably the most racist president in American history, with many of his views outside the mainstream of his time. Wilson defended the KKK, was opposed to black suffrage and re-segregated the federal government.
Furthermore, everything about the Civil War was based upon preserving slavery in the South. The reasons given by Jones all are tied to slavery. Read the Confederate Constitution and speeches from their leaders. Slavery was the cause. For example, the CSA Constitution enshrined slavery in perpetuity, stating, “No law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
How did you ignore that? How can you defend that? It takes just a simple Google search to read these documents. It is naive to believe otherwise. Moreover, the states’ rights argument is debunked time and time again as it is based on romanticizing the Confederacy without any recognition of the fact the CSA was a centralized, antidemocratic government in its own right.
No, Nathan Bedford Forrest deserves no place of honor in Tennessee, especially when there are so many other deserving Tennesseans who have done more and should be honored. By any standard in any era, Forrest was a monster as many of his contemporaries believed. The vast majority of his life was dedicated to the subjugation of a race of people and those who sought their liberty.
Tennesseans should expect more from the people they honor. Our Capitol is a place that should unify our state. Unless you are trying to unify white supremacists, Forrest is not a unifying figure. But, again, tell Forrest’s whole story in a museum. Then let Tennesseans decide if he is the same as Hitler, Mao and Stalin, all whom held similar views on exterminating and enslaving minority populations.
Don’t fool yourself to believe that if given the resources, Forrest would not have attempted similar measures against African Americans. Just look at the Fort Pillow massacre and Ku Klux Klan as all the evidence you need. These actions alone are disqualifying for a place of honor.
Tennesseans deserve better.