Race Still Matters In Mississippi: The Haley Barbour-Nathan Forrest Dilemma

February 17, 2011
Written by Janice S. Ellis... in
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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 none other than 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 best known for leading the forces that massacred the African-American Union troops who had already surrendered during the battle of Fort Pillow. Whether Forrest gave the direct order, participated in the massacre, or just stood watch, has been fodder to historians over the decades.

Fast forward to this week. The attempt to have a special license plate honoring Forrest reminds us of the strain of race relations in Mississippi. The Mississippi NAACP and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are on opposite ends of this issue.

altThe NAACP has appealed to the current Governor, Haley Barbour, who is a potential Republican Presidential candidate, to denounce this attempt to honor a man who, while achieving as an army general, also committed acts of atrocity against black Americans. Governor Barbour unabashedly and defiantly proclaimed 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 is also aspiring to 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?

altWe certainly need to be clear about what kind of destructive deeds we will not honor.

Many memorials have been erected in Forrest’s honor: A Bronze Bust of Forrest at the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Memphis Tennessee and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome, Georgia are among them.

Beyond the controversy of whether to honor or not to honor the deeds of Nathan Bedford Forrest with a special license plate is the looming question: When will we as human beings face the fact that we all need to denounce and get beyond racial hatred and bigotry in all its forms. We have seen the price it has exacted historically and continues in our world today. And every times it raises its ugly head, it impedes progress, keeps us from moving forward.

What lasting value does it offer?