John A. Tures, Huffington Post, Political science professor, LaGrange College in Georgia
Think that if he were alive today, General Nathan Bedford Forrest would embrace Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of nine blacks in a Charleston Church who hoped to start a race war?
Think again. In fact, toward the end of his life, General Forrest would have likely sought to exterminate those who would kill blacks in his name, or for his “cause,” like Roof.
Sure General Nathan Bedford Forrest may have helped lead the Ku Klux Klan, and he’s blamed for the massacre of Ft. Pillow, but there’s a part of Forrest that needs to be told to those who continue to cheer him as a champion of the South. He eventually saw the light, softened his racism, and eventually worked to destroy the KKK. It was the best thing he ever did.
Forrest is a controversial figure today. He’s memorialized in a statue off Interstate 65 in Nashville, and I see it every time I visit my parents, who live one exit away. That statue, designed by the attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, also surrounded by Confederate flags, is the subject of debate, as is the bust of him in the Tennessee statehouse, a response to Roof’s slaughter of African Americans after a bible study.
Now I’ve never been a fan of General Forrest. I wrote a column criticizing Generals William T. Sherman and General Nathan Bedford Forrest for their actions during the Civil War a week before the shooting, and published other articles in the past calling for Mississippi not to honor Forrest on a license plate, and Memphis not to have a statue for him.
But even this Forrest critic can admit that the Klan founder did one great thing for this country. He disbanded the KKK, and even worked to fight those who wanted to keep it going.
As Ben Phelan with PBS writes:
“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.”
If you read Eddy W. Davison’s “Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma,” on page 464 and 474-475, you can see that Forrest not only publicly disavowed the KKK and worked to terminate it, but in August 1874, Forrest “volunteered to help ‘exterminate’ those men responsible for the continued violence against the blacks.” After the murder of four blacks by a lynch mob after they were arrested for defending themselves at a BBQ, Forrest wrote to Tennessee Governor Brown, offering “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.”
So for those who seek to kill blacks while waving a Confederate flag, or those who burn African American churches across the South, including my state of Georgia, keep this in mind: General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the Confederate War heroes you worship, wouldn’t have approved. In fact, they might have fought you for your illegal actions.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.