Monday, August 3, 2015

Defending Nathan Bedford Forrest

Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
      Calling for the removal of the Confederate flag and the disinterment of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, is conjuring up mixed feelings and myriad opinions.
      The quagmire has even snagged the attention of an African-American professor at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, whose opinion may surprise those on both sides of the debate when putting the legacy of Forrest and the Confederate flag in context.    
      “It’s sad in a way that they’re bringing down the Confederate flag,” said Stan Armstrong, an instructor in African-American Film and Ethnic Studies at UNLV and an African American and Choctaw filmmaker.
      “The Confederate flag is a religious flag,” said Armstrong, noting that the “stars and bars” design is an X-shape crucifixion of St. Andrews. It also was the battle flag of the Confederate States of America and used by hate groups as a symbol of racial hatred and bigotry.
      “It’s sad that people are being forced to do something that they don’t want to do. I’m neither pro nor against the Confederacy. It’s about understanding culture,” said Armstrong, who has studied the Civil War extensively and wrote his thesis on Forrest.
      The flag debate has been simmering since Memphis removed a huge granite marker to Forrest in January 2013 and since the city renamed three Confederate-themed parks in advance of a legislative vote to block the name changes.
      Republican state legislators subsequently filed The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013, but not before Confederate Park was changed to Memphis Park, Jefferson Davis Park to Mississippi River Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park.
      The descendants of Forrest also jumped into the fray. They vehemently resisted the removal of Forrest’s granite marker – paid for by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) – and moved to stop the city in court.
      The Confederate flag debate, however, resurfaced after 21-year-old Dylan Storm Roof, the accused shooter of nine parishioners at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., was seen in several photos waving the battle flag and burning the American flag in another.
      The Confederate flag has since caused a ripple of anti-sentiment and bitter discontent across America, particularly among African Americans, who are demanding the removal of all Civil War symbols from public places.
      South Carolina responded swiftly to the demand and henceforth ended the Confederate flag’s 54-year reign over the state’s capitol grounds. Memphis along with other cities are following suit to begin the process of removing anything that is deemed racist and offensive.  
      It is nothing more than a “knee-jerk” reaction to the horrific shooting of those nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., said Lee Millar, a spokesman for SCV, a group of male descendants of Confederate veterans.
      “It is really, actually disgusting that people would use what happened to the nine victims to forward their own agenda about getting rid of the Confederate flag and other historic symbols like that,” said Millar, offering his condolences to the bereaved families and a sharp rebuke of Roof, who admitted that race motivated him to kill.
      “They ought to take the guy out and hang him,” said Millar. “Unfortunately, there are nut cases like that all over the country in all races.”
      The Confederate flag had nothing to do with the church shooting, Millar protested. He also said Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann, who are buried underneath a bronze statue in Forrest’s honor in Health Sciences Park, should not be disinterred. 
      Forrest died in 1877. He was originally buried in Elmwood Cemetery among other Confederate war veterans before his remains were moved in 1905 to the newly created Forrest Park. After the Charleston shooting, Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and City Council chairman Myron Lowery issued a proposal to have Forrest and is wife returned to Elmwood.
      In early July, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to remove the remains of Forrest and his wife back to Elmwood Cemetery and to sell or relocate the equestrian statue of Forrest. The Tennessee Historical Commission and Forrest’s descendants, however, would have to grant the city permission before the move is made.
      “The city collectively as a whole has expressed concern about the presence of the monument,” said Wharton, following a recent news conference to talk about the burning of African-American churches. “It’s the right thing to do.”
      Plans also are afoot to remove the bust of Forrest from the Tennessee state capitol and to stop the state from issuing SCV vanity license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag, which Gov. Bill Haslam has said he supports.
      The whole Confederate shebang is throwing the country into a tailspin and leaving Millar and other Confederate supporters making a last ditch effort to save the last vestiges of the antebellum South from being banished to a museum.
      Millar is trying to make a case for the Confederate flag. “It means heritage. It does not mean hate. And it does not mean slavery,” he said, noting that 60,000 African-American southerners served among the Confederate forces, including those Forrest commanded.
      The facts surrounding the Confederate flag and Forrest’s exploits in and off the battlefield are often skewed. Millar and Armstrong, also a member of SCV, want to set the record straight. They’re trying to educate, clarify and debunk any myths surrounding the flag and the infamous general, slave owner and Klan leader.
      “The education system is very poor,” said Millar. “The kids in school learned that the South succeeded, that (President) Lincoln freed the slaves, and that the war was over. They don’t learn about the cause of the secession.”
      Millar argued that the secessionists broke away from the Union to start an independent country. “They broke away because of what they thought was a tyrannical government – exactly what the colonists did in The Revolutionary War.”
      Forrest rose to the rank of general after displaying military prowess. His reputation, however, was sullied after the slaughter of African-American Union soldiers who were allegedly surrendering at Fort Pillow, a former Confederate stronghold only 40 miles north of Memphis.
      “It’s a shame that his record had to be blackened by events at Fort Pillow,” said Armstrong, noting that people often listen to sound bites and don’t seek the truth when historical events are called into question.
      Forrest’s slave-trading business prior to the Civil War is another serious bone of contention that is still troubling to African Americans. While the facts are indisputable to some people, Armstrong said Forrest was a product of his time.
      “To me, slavery was about status and classism…just like it is today,” said Armstrong, calling Forrest a “descent guy” and “humanitarian.” “He was a slave trader who didn’t separate families. A lot of slaves probably lived better than white trash in Memphis. When he died, he probably had more black people in attendance than whites.”
      Both Armstrong and Millar dispute Forrest’s complicity in the dreaded Klu Klux Klan, purportedly a “social club” that six ex-Confederate soldiers founded in Pulaski, Tenn. Forrest was not the founder, said Millar, pointing out that the general was recruited because of his influence.
      Armstrong backs up Millar’s assertion, saying Forrest, who was the grand wizard by proxy, led the group until he disbanded them after they’d begun running amok and wreaking havoc among African Americans.
      There were three Klans, Millar said. The first was formed after the Civil War in December 1865 as a secret social group; the second, created around 1915, attempted to scare immigrants and African Americans away from jobs; and the third, formed in the 1950s, morphed into today’s hate group.
      “If you look at that Klan, they carried the American flag. None of them carried the Confederate battle flag,” said Millar. “People remember the third Klan because they were so radical.”
      Armstrong said he’s always been fascinated with Forrest, even though votes have been cast to disinter Forrest and his wife and relocate his bronze statue. Moreover, in city after city, the Confederate flag is now becoming a museum relic. 
      “It’s sad that it took nine lives to bring down the Confederate flag,” said Armstrong. “I believe we’ll never understand the Civil War in our lives.”

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