Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author and editor of two books. Later this year, the University of North Carolina will publish his next book, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.
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.
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.
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.
As white Memphians united to defend of their community and shared values, one Memphis editorial proclaimed, "Forrest has come to his own again." The writer praised the Klan's commitment to "the protection of the honor and independence of Southern social condition" and recalled Forrest as "that leader whose iron hand held the reins of safety over the South when Northern dominion apotheosized the negro and set misrule and devastation to humiliate a proud race."
The next time white Memphis rallied around the monument was in July 1958, when large numbers turned out to celebrate Forrest's birthday. Many participants could be seen waving Confederate flags. Forrest's own granddaughter, Mary Forrest Bradley, explained the upsurge of interest as a backlash against school desegregation. At a time when Southerners felt their way of life being threatened, Forrest became a convenient symbol of white supremacy and "massive resistance" against encroachment by the federal government.
These demonstrations, according to Carney, didn't last long; they were soon followed by a relatively peaceful integration process. The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 led to another round of racial unrest that altered the city's demographics once again: After white residents fled to the suburbs, black Memphians constituted more than half the population, exercising increased political control over local affairs.
The control that white Memphians enjoyed over popular perceptions of Forrest's past all but ended by the 1970s. Since then, the public's understanding of slavery has continued to evolve, as reflected by the 1977 television miniseries Roots, the 1989 movie Glory, and the recent Hollywood films Lincoln and Django Unchained.
At the same time, the many public events related to the Civil War sesquicentennial are bringing a new level of scrutiny to Confederate monuments and symbols -- and along with it, a renewed effort to address many of the tough questions related to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Unlike 50 years ago, when Americans celebrated the Civil War centennial, African Americans now hold many political positions throughout the South and have significant influence over the ways their communities commemorate the past.
In the case of Forrest, it means that the Confederate general's history as a slave trader, massacre enabler, and Klan leader can no longer be ignored. A generation ago, after the Memphis chapter of the NAACP called for the removal of the Forrest monument, a respected scholar like Shelby Foote was able to soften Forrest's image by suggesting that "he avoided splitting up families or selling [slaves] to cruel plantation owners." Foote also denied that the Klan "was a hate group when Forrest knew it." Such gentlemanly defenses would fail to hold up today for anyone with even a cursory understanding of the relevant historical sources.
Forrest still has his advocates, but they are now forced to defend his record against increased attacks that highlight the history of slavery and racism. Millar, the SCV spokesperson, recentlyclaimed, as Foote did, that Forrest was a "humane slave holder." The difference is that these views of are now on the fringe of mainstream society; they no longer unify white Southerners the way they once did.
As it currently stands, the Memphis city council has organized a committee to decide on permanent names for Forrest Park, as well as Jefferson Davis and Confederate Parks. The SCV, with their staunch opposition to the name change, have not been included in this committee. But in a strange twist, they've joined forces with the NAACP as they oppose the Klan's planned rally. (The city of Memphis has approved the Klan's gathering on the condition that the Klansmen remain unarmed and leave their faces uncovered.)
The verdict is still out on whether Forrest Park will be stripped permanently of its association with the Confederate general. What can no longer be denied, however, is that a significant number of white and black Southerners no longer see such monuments as a reflection of shared values, or a historical legacy worth honoring.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.