Brent Staples makes good points about what Confederate statuary is really about, especially when we are talking about people like Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Not all monuments warrant that kind of challenge. But those honoring the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest deserve the backlash they have generated. Forrest presided over the 1864 massacre of Union soldiers, many of them black, at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. He was also a prominent slave trader and served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Apologists argue that his involvement with the Klan was unimportant because he later adopted more enlightened views. But as the Forrest biographer Jack Hurst writes, by lending his name to the K.K.K. even temporarily, the general accelerated its development. “As the Klan’s first national leader,” Mr. Hurst writes, “he became the Lost Cause’s avenging angel, galvanizing a loose collection of boyish secret social clubs into a reactionary instrument of terror still feared today.”
Protests erupted in Selma, Ala., in 2000 when a bust of Forrest was unveiled on the grounds of a museum. (One critic likened it to erecting a statue of Hitler in a Jewish neighborhood.) The sculpture was subsequently moved to a cemetery.
Wait, Selma unveiled a monument to Forrest in 2000? Wow.
What should we do with such monuments? Some should clearly be taken down. I’m not 100% supportive of erasing the racist history of the past from the public spaces it occupies. It’s possible to interpret it as sites of racism. But really, who is going to do that? Does Memphis have the capability and money for the long-term interpretation of its infamous Forrest statue? Probably not. And we are not bound by our ancestors choices in who to memorialize. Just because a statue was erected in 1895 does not mean need to leave it up in 2015. If the statue was to an open racist, KKK founder, and commander during the Fort Pillow Massacre like Forrest, I don’t see any good reason to keep that statue up. That’s what belongs in a museum, with plenty of interpretation as to why it was seen as desirable to put that statue up and what that said about white supremacy and black rights in the post-Reconstruction South.
Some will claim that these fights over the Civil War are meaningless and don’t solve racism. First, no one claimed they would solve racism, a fight that can be fought but not won. Second, if you don’t think the past matters, talk to Lynne Cheney. Talk to the people fighting the AP US History standards for being too liberal (typically the AP response was to make this year’s DBQ about the rise of conservatism, which according to my grader friends, was all set up to make students write about how government doesn’t work). Ask the Texans seeking to eliminate all discussion of civil rights from the state’s history textbooks. Ask Bree Newsome. Ask the victims of Dylann Roof. The past matters a lot, and especially the Civil War past. These symbols are almost as much about the present as the past and symbols are incredibly important. We are turning a corner in the popular understanding of the Civil War as being about slavery and racism and eliminating statues honoring people like Forrest are an important part of that, especially since that’s where the energy and momentum is right now. And as I’ve said before about many movements, no one can control where the energy is at a given time and it needs to be built upon with concrete gains before it dissipates.
Similarly, we aren’t beholden to what our ancestors decided to name sites in this nation, north or south. Does Minnesota need a Lake Calhoun? I think not. Does Michigan need a Calhoun County? No. Why not rename it? Might I suggest Harrington County, after former Duck and Lions legend Joey Harrington? That’s sure to gain support throughout the Mitten.
Speaking of such things, yesterday I visited one of my favorite spots in this great nation: where the traitorous slaveholder Stonewall Jackson was shot and mortally wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Terrible battle for the Union, but good times. I wanted to run out to where Longstreet was shot in the neck by his own troops at the Wilderness, but I ran out of time. Next trip to Virginia I guess.