It all started on February 10, 2011, when Fox news reported that there is a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877). Rage and denunciations flew. But did any of us actually know what we were talking about?
The state-issued plates are to mark the 150th anniversary of the “War between the states.” Forrest is without a doubt a controversial figure in American history.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) helped sponsor a set of Mississippi license plates commemorating the Civil War: Forrest is the choice for the 2014 plate. But there’s a fly in the ointment: The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says that the Sons of Confederate Veterans are a racist and white supremacist “hate group”:
In what may be the clearest sign yet of this extremist drift, an analysis by the Intelligence Reportfinds that a significant number of SCV officials — including at least 10 men who hold key national leadership positions — are also active or recent members of hate groups, principally two neo-Confederate groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and the League of the South.
The SPLC goes on to observe that “Early editions of the SCV’s Confederate Veteran newsletter defended the Ku Klux Klan, argued that the United States was created ‘for white people,'” Sounds a lot like today’s message that the United States was created for Christians – who happen to be white.
It’s no wonder then that the Mississippi NAACP petitioned Republican Governor Haley Barbour to denounce the plates and prevent their distribution.
“We’re calling for the governor to denounce the actions of the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” said Johnson. “We would like to see the governor of this state denounce any action by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, given (Forrest’s) extremely racist past.”
I want you to remember the NAACP’s words, “extremely racist past” as you read along. It will become important at the end.
Barbour, who is a potential 2012 presidential candidate and might wish to avoid alienating too many people at this point (a strategy different from that of other Republicans) tried to dodge responsibility, declining to denounce a group’s proposal, saying: “”I know there’s not a chance it’ll become law.” He said, “I don’t go around denouncing people.”
Haley Barbour is being denounced by the left for this inaction but he might be the one who has the right of it, however pure or impure his motives might be.
This is in many ways a war over the Nation’s collective history. Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest? War hero? Slave owner? Racist? Member of the KKK? He was all those things. He was a slave-owner, and he bought and sold slaves, many of them. From one of his ads:
FIVE HUNDRED NEGROES WANTED. – We will pay the highest cash price for all good Negroes offered. We invite all those having Negroes for sale, to call on us, at our Mart, opposite Hill’s old stand, on Adams street. We will have a good lot of Virginia Negroes on hand, for sale, in the fall. Negroes bought and sold on commission. HILL & FORREST.
We are often told that he was not only a member of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) but its first Grand Wizard, but there is no real proof of this and he should not be denounced solely on the basis of unproven accusations. Forrest himself denied, in testimony before Congress, of being a member of that organization (40th Congress, House of Representatives, Executive Documents No. 1, Report of the Secretary of War, Chapter X, Page 193).
But he was a slave owner. You can accuse him on the basis of the above of “extreme racism” – he advocated ownership of people based on their skin color, after all. He did side with the Confederacy against the United States government. He was also a war hero, a certifiable genius and early proponent of mobile warfare that was to characterize the 20th century. As Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote (The Civil War, 1971:160),
“Forrest … used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry. Not for nothing did Forrest say the essence of strategy was ‘to git thar fust with the most men’.”
We have to reconcile these two pictures, of a courageous military leader and a slave owner, moreover a man who, if a member of the KKK after the war, before his death seemed to soften his ideas of race relations. In an 1875 speech (two years before his death) to the black civil rights group, the Pole-Bearers Association, when a young black woman, Miss Lou Lewis, offered him a bouquet of flowers, he said, Think now about that charge of extreme racism as you read:
“Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. ( Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand. (Prolonged applause.)”
General Nathan Bedford Forrest, military genius and former slave-owner, then thanked Miss Lou Lewis again, and kissed the young black woman on the cheek. In Memphis, in 1875, when such things were not done, he kissed her on the cheek.
And when he died, his funeral was attended not only by whites Americans, but by black Americans as well.
Is the NAACP aware of this speech? It ought to be. The Pole-Bearers Association to which Forrest addressed his remarks was the predecessor to the NAACP.
History is always a bit more nuanced that we think it is, or than we sometimes want it to be. Maybe, once in a while, we should stop to look at all the facts before we begin our denunciations. Maybe we should be celebrating that a former klansman could change his colors, so to speak, and come to a new understanding of humanity. Perhaps we should let the actions of a white supremacist hate group celebrate that. The irony would be delicious.
The irony too, should not be lost, that the group Forrest directed these conciliatory words toward is now the group leading his denunciation. Is he more to blame for once owning blacks, or more to be praised for coming to the realization that he was wrong?
It could just be that he deserves that license plate as a symbol of redemption.
Photo: U.S. Army Military History Institute, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the U.S.-Massachusetts Commandery Collection [RG667S MOLLUS-MASS Coll. Vol. 85, p.4280B].