Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest

“Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi G****m”
-Nina Simone

JACKSON, Miss. - A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which it calls the "War Between the States." The group proposes a different design each year between now and 2015, with Forrest slated for 2014.
"Seriously?" state NAACP president Derrick Johnson said when he was told about the Forrest plate. "Wow."
Forrest, a Tennessee native, is revered by some as a military genius and reviled by others for leading an 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Forrest was a Klan grand wizard in Tennessee after the war.
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Greg Stewart said he believes Forrest distanced himself from the Klan later in life. It's a point many historians agree upon, though some believe it was too little, too late, because the Klan had already turned violent before Forrest left.
"If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words," Stewart said. "We should respect that."
And here we go again.  As Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.  This is true of America in general, the South in particular and perhaps Mississippi most of all.  This is ultimately what these constant battles over history are about-whether it is textbooks in Texas,  Michele Bachmann’s whitewashing of the Founding Fathers or the never ending battles over the Civil War and associated symbols.  Who gets to define history?  Who gets to tell the story? That’s the question.  Here’s what one eyewitness had to say about the Fort Pillow massacre:

Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote to his sister immediately after the battle: "The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

From my POV there is simply no way to take nuanced views on the Civil War.  
The Confederates tried to break up the nation because they were concerned about their ability to keep slaves. They wanted to extend and protect slavery throughout the entire nation.  Don’t take my word for it. Read what they wrote.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war this nation ever fought.  More Americans died in the Civil War than died in World War II. The South lost. Slavery was ended. That was a good thing.  Not only did the South lose, it got its collective a$$ kicked, militarily speaking.  However a horrible thing happened postbellum. For a variety of reasons- political, pragmatic, racial and cultural- the South never really admitted that it was wrong.  
Unlike post-WWII Germany the South never had to face up to its crimes and indeed the North ultimately lacked the interest or resources to force it to do so. These were after all Americans. There was money to be made and reconciliation to accomplish. So the Black narrative of what the war was about or what slavery was like was ignored and the myth of the Lost Cause and the gentlemanly rebel took hold. Obviously these myths still resonate with many people today. The US thus lost a chance to save itself another 100 or so years of segregation, murder and exploitation.

Now I really don’t care what people put on their vehicle or what sort of shirt they wear.  
But I do draw the line at state endorsement of a man who led an armed rebellion against the United States. 
Ironically however Forrest's last recorded speech in 1875 was given to an early Black civil rights group. In this speech he supposedly urged racial reconciliation and may have defended voting rights for Blacks.

Is this just a question of if you don’t like the proposed license plate don’t get one?
Do you see any First Amendment issue here?   
Why are there some Americans who grasp so tightly to a belief that the Confederacy was a good thing?
Where are the Germans who hold similar views about the Nazis?   
If John Newton (slave trader and author of Amazing Grace) can be redeemed , why not Nathan Bedford Forrest?
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