A private group wants to build a monument to honor Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest in a public cemetery in Selma, Alabama.
Forrest led the Confederate troops during the Battle of Selma in 1865, one of the final battles of the American Civil War. He lost Selma – badly.
Before the war, Forrest was a slave dealer. He advertised his company with posters like this. Selling human beings had made him a very wealthy man. By God, he was going to defend his way of life – even if he had to die.
Then there’s the Battle of Fort Pillow in which Forrest commanded the massacre of nearly 500 black Union soldiers after they had surrendered. This is how Forrest himself described the massacre:
“The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
After the Civil War, Forrest was among a small group of disgruntled Confederate officers who founded the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. Whether or not Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK remains unclear, though he was known as The Wizard of the Saddle, so there’s that.
In March, vandals reportedly stole the bust of Forrest from atop its 7-foot base, infuriating the Friends of Forrest, the group funding the new enterprise. Now they want to rebuild and expand the thing and put a fence around it. They also want to install security cameras and L.E.D lights.
You have got to be kidding me.
Last week, the Selma City Council voted to stop all work on the monument – until the courts decide if a private group can own a plot of public land.
This American says no. Public symbols that serve to honor slave owners do not deserve our collective esteem as Americans.
Could Forrest supporters have built this statue in 1865, or even in 1875? The answer is likely no. To put forth such a plan at that time would have been stupid, and possibly treasonous.
I used to visit Selma frequently when I was a teenager. My cousins lived there, and they drove my brother and me around a lot. We drove to the Piggly Wiggly. We drove to the downtown Selma video store. We listened to tapes. We must have passed the Forrest monument a gazillion times during those drives.
Our Selma trips petered out in the early 90s along with cassette tapes, and soon afterwards, I started college. I chose to major in history with a focus on African American studies. Suddenly I understood the importance of Selma in a new and profound way. It was no longer just the backdrop of an Indian American kid’s summer vacation.
It was where the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 had taken place. Martin Luther King Jr. led the second of these three historic marches, but it was the first one that earned the name Bloody Sunday.
The Selma to Montgomery marches played a pivotal part in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last week, Michelle Obama called voting rights “the nation’s most important civil rights issue”. The KKK has historically sought to suppress the black vote by using terror tactics. We know all too well about those. There may not have been beheadings, as such, but there were public lynchings that were equally gruesome.
Nathan Forrest was not even from Alabama; he was from Tennessee, the birthplace of the Klan. He has a state park named after him in Eva, Tennessee. His remains are buried in Memphis. He has his very own monument there for people to enjoy if they choose.
But leave Selma alone.
Hate groups have been on a steady and dramatic rise since 2008, the year President Obama took office.
A few weeks ago, residents of a Louisiananeighborhood discovered KKK fliers in their mailboxes. Smartly, people are keeping cool heads.
But in Georgia around the same time, a KKK chapter sued the state because it rejected their application to adopt a stretch of highway.
It is when the barks of hate groups reach the level of litigation that we should all pay attention.
If the Forrest statue in Selma gets approved, it will reignite racial tensions. It will serve as a major recruitment tool and pilgrimage site for the KKK and groups like it. No city needs that kind of press. Especially Selma.
Freedom of speech is one of the sacred laws of our land, but there are rare instances when it must be overridden by concerns of national security. The Union won the Civil War in 1865, so it makes no sense to use its public lands afresh in 2012 to honor an ex-Confederate leader.
Selma should quash this thing before it gets out of hand.
© V.S. Pillay 2012