A Mississippi organization, The Sons of Confederate Veterans, is seeking to have a commemorative license plate named after a famous Confederate General. That within itself is not the problem. But the General they seek to honor is: General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
While Nathan Bedford Forrest earned the reputation of being a great cavalry leader in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, there are also historical accounts that he served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante group known for reigning terror against blacks. In addition to being a slave trader himself, Forrest became most known for leading the forces that massacred African-American Union troops that had surrendered during the battle of Fort Pillow. Whether Forrest gave the direct order, participated in the massacre or just stood watch has been fodder for historians over the decades. However, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica website, “In what proved the ugliest racial incident of the war, Confederate forces under General Nathan B. Forrest captured Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, and proceeded to kill all the black troops within; some were burned or buried alive. A Federal congressional investigating committee subsequently verified that more than 300 blacks, including women and children, had been slain.”
Fast forward to 2011. The attempt to have a special license plate honoring Forrest reminds us of the strain of race relations in Mississippi and elsewhere across the nation. The Mississippi NAACP and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are on opposite ends of this issue.
The NAACP has appealed to current Governor, and potential Republican Presidential candidate, Haley Barbour to denounce this attempt to honor a man who, while making notable achievements as an army general, also committed acts of atrocity against black Americans. Governor Barbour unabashedly and defiantly proclaimed recently to a reporter, “I don’t go around denouncing people.” When asked what he thought of the General/KKK leader, mass murderer(?) in a historical context, Governor Barbour said, “He’s a historical figure.”
While Barbour went on to say that he thought the state would not likely approve a Nathan Bedford Forrest license plate, he did not express what he thought was the correct and honorable thing to do.
Why didn’t he?
Was this the right position for a state leader? A leader, who might run and become President of the United States?
On a broader level: What warrants an honorable designation? What or Who is deserving of a national or state commemorative medal, license plate — any type of honor?
We certainly need to be clear about what kind of destructive deeds we will not honor.
There are many memorials erected in Forrest’s honor, including a Bronze Bust of Forrest at the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, in Memphis, Tenn., and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, in Rome, Georgia.
Beyond the controversy of whether to honor or not honor the deeds of Nathan Bedford Forrest with a special license plate looms a broader more important question: When will we, as humans being, face the fact that we all need to denounce, and move beyond racial hatred and bigotry in all its forms? We have seen the price it has exacted historically and continues today. And every times it raises its ugly head, it has the potential to impede progress and keep us from moving forward. So what lasting value does perpetuating any symbols of racial hatred and bigotry offer?
What do you think?