Remembering Rutherford: Forrest was postwar activist for black civil rights

Greg Tucker, Daily News Journal, July 13, 2015

Retired Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was an outspoken advocate for the civil rights of the freedmen in postwar Tennessee.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, July 21, 1821 - October 29, 1877

Nathan Bedford Forrest, July 21, 1821 – October 29, 1877

This advocacy and his popularity with the Memphis black community were resented by some of his white contemporaries who spread false rumors to discredit the general and further their own political interests.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War and while Memphis was still under U.S. military command, Forrest spoke to the federal authorities regarding the former slaves within their command. He noted that many of the freedmen were skilled artisans and should be employed.

Additionally, he urged the authorities to establish training programs for the younger blacks, so the next generation would not be dependent.

Forrest also approached the Memphis Board of Aldermen, according to newspaper accounts, and argued that the black citizens could be doctors, clerks, bankers or anything else if given the opportunity and education. He believed that the blacks were a part of the community and should be involved and employed like anyone else.

Although his words to the federal authorities and the city aldermen went unheeded, Forrest conducted his own business consistent with what he urged upon others.

As president of the Selma, Marion & Memphis Railroad, he employed former slaves as construction engineers, crew foremen, train engineers and conductors. Blacks were hired as managers, as well as laborers.

In 1875, Forrest was invited to address a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis, at its Fourth of July barbecue.

Although told by several whites that he should not participate, Forrest accepted the invitation. See McClarey, “Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation,” American Catholic (Aug. 6, 2010).

Just before he spoke, Forrest was presented a bouquet of flowers by the daughter of a Pole Bearers’ officer. The gathering was at the Memphis fairgrounds, and Forrest’s short, extemporaneous speech was reprinted in the Memphis newspaper, as follows:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.)

“I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. (Applause.)

“I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics.

“You have a right to elect whom you please, vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office.

“I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends and welcome you to the white people.

“I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.

“Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict.

“Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.)

After the speech Forrest thanked the young black woman for the bouquet and kissed her on the cheek. This public familiarity between the races was unheard of at the time.

In his speech Forrest referred to “black persons here who stood by me through the war.” Apparently in the crowd were some of the cavalrymen who served in his command.

When Forrest’s cavalry surrendered in May 1865, sixty-five blacks were on Forrest’s muster role, including eight in Forrest’s Escort, the general’s handpicked elite inner circle. Commenting on the performance of his black soldiers, Forrest said: “Finer Confederates never fought.”

Forrest detractors allege that the Confederate general was the “founder of the KKK.” This is factually incorrect. The 19th century Ku Klos was founded as a fraternal organization on Dec. 24, 1865, in Pulaski by Thomas M. Jones, a Giles County judge; Frank O. McCord, publisher of the Pulaski newspaper; and four other Confederate veterans. Though not present at a Ku Klos meeting in Nashville in 1867, Forrest was elected as grand wizard of the organization.

There is no evidence that Forrest ever wore any Klan costume or ever “rode” on any Klan activity. He did, however, on Oct. 20, 1869, order that all costumes and other regalia be destroyed and that Klan activity be ended.

This was confirmed by the U. S. Congress in 1871: “The natural tendency of all such organizations is to violence and crime, hence it was that Gen. Forrest and other men of influence by the exercise of their moral power, induced them to disband.” See U. S. Congressional Committee Report (June 27, 1871).

When Forrest died in 1877, Memphis newspapers reported that his funeral procession was over two miles long. The throng of mourners was estimated to include over 3,000 black citizens of Memphis.

A special thanks for research assistance to Billy Miller (Murfreesboro) and Dan McGuire and Lee Millar (Memphis).

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