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Blain writes: "An obscure Tennessee law required Gov. Bill Lee to declare this past Saturday 'Nathan Bedford Forrest Day' to commemorate the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader. But Lee went further, admitting he had not even considered whether the law should be changed."

A statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in a park in Memphis in August 2017. (photo: Adrian Sainz/AP)
A statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in a park in Memphis in August 2017. (photo: Adrian Sainz/AP)

Tennessee Just Showed That White Supremacy Is Alive and Well

By Keisha N. Blain, The Washington Post

15 July 19

Honoring a former Confederate general and KKK grand wizard in 2019 is outrageous

n obscure Tennessee law required Gov. Bill Lee to declare this past Saturday “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” to commemorate the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader. But Lee went further, admitting he had not even considered whether the law should be changed. His actions drew sharp criticism from politicians throughout the country, including ultraconservative U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Lee’s refusal to call for changing the law and the fact that Tennessee still celebrates Forrest are a stark reminder that white supremacy is alive and well. For those who have fallen for the “post-racial society” myth, Lee’s declaration may be a wake-up call. But for everyone else, Lee’s declaration is just another reminder that white supremacy is deeply entrenched in American society.

By paying homage to a horrific figure like Forrest, Tennessee is disrespecting its black citizens and signaling that it would rather uphold its racist past than grapple with its many toxic legacies.

Forrest has been deeply embedded in that racist legacy for more than 150 years. The political question of his time was one that had starkly divided Americans since the founding: slavery. So fundamental was slavery to Southern states that seven of them seceded from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s election on Nov. 6, 1860. The thought of a president entering office who might bring an end to slavery — although Lincoln made no such promise — sent Confederate leaders into a frenzy.

The quick unraveling that took place following Lincoln’s election underscores the deep divisions over race in the nation, divisions that remain at the core of U.S. society. Indeed, the Confederates’ struggle to protect “states’ rights” was nothing more than an effort to preserve states’ rights to uphold slavery.

Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens admitted as much in his 1861 Cornerstone speech. “[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens bluntly proclaimed.

Ultimately, the Confederates could not escape the reality that the basis of their way of life hinged on the exploitation and enslavement of 4 million black people. They also could not escape the reality that their desire to maintain the status quo was fueled by a desire to maintain white supremacy.

That became abundantly clear after the war ended. While the North tried to bring about some measure of racial equality through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and Reconstruction more broadly, the South was determined to maintain as much of its way of life as possible. Southern legislators quickly enacted black codes, laws designed to curtail black freedom and control black people’s lives and labor.

Concerned that their ironclad rule was at risk as black people gained more political rights, a group of Confederate veterans organized the first branch of the KKK in Pulaski, Tenn., explicitly to maintain white supremacy. They were determined to keep black people “in their place” through unrelenting violence, terror and intimidation.

A year later, the group elected Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man well known for his blatant disregard for black people, as the group’s grand wizard. The former slave trader and slaveholder had owned several cotton plantations in Tennessee, becoming one of the wealthiest white men in the region. Under his leadership, the KKK terrorized black residents and destroyed homes, schools and churches in Tennessee and throughout the South. By the early 20th century, the KKK had become an organization with millions of white members in hundreds of chapters throughout the country.

From Tennessee to New York, white mobs attacked black people and devastated black communities with impunity. And they did so in the name of white supremacy and often under the banner of the Confederate flag.

Terrorizing black people, especially those who dared fight for equal rights, remained a routine feature of American life throughout the first half of the 20th century, as in 1921 when Nathan Bedford Forrest Day was established. As the nation underwent significant political transformation during the 1960s and 1970s, white supremacists continued to erect Confederate monuments and statues, and defiantly promoted Confederate symbols and icons to signal their blatant refusal to accept the expansion of black citizenship rights.

This pattern was evident in Tennessee. In 1964, Tennessee elected A.W. Willis Jr. as its first black state legislator since the 19th century, and in 1966, Dorothy Lavinia Brown became the first black woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly. As African Americans found greater political opportunities in Tennessee, however, white supremacists devised strategies to intimidate black voters. By 1971, years after Jim Crow was defeated, a Tennessee code was established to recognize six state holidays, including Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, now a “special day of commemoration,” on July 13. In 1978, a bust of Forrest was placed in Tennessee’s Capitol rotunda.

By exalting figures like Forrest, and doing so in very public ways, white supremacists in Tennessee glorified — and continue to glorify — the Confederacy and everything it stood for. Even more so, they were sending a clear message to black people that white supremacy would remain the order of the day, regardless of the political gains of the civil rights movement.

Today, many Southerners claim that such commemorations and the refusal to purge the symbols and icons of the Confederacy merely reflect homage for their “heritage.” But this “heritage” is inextricably intertwined with slavery, white supremacy, violence and terrorism. That's what Nathan Bedford Forrest stood for, and a day in his honor is reprehensible.

Forrest deserves no recognition, only scorn. Declaring Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in 2019 mocks the millions of black people in this country whose lives have been devastated by the history of slavery, oppression, and white mob violence.

Such a day can only serve one purpose and one purpose alone: to let the world know that the state of Tennessee would rather uphold the racist legacy of the Confederacy and maintain white supremacy rather than respect — and protect — its black residents.

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0 # DongiC 2019-07-15 17:23
Forrest was a true, native grown terrorist eager to use violence and mayhem to keep the negro in his place. Too honor him is an abomination and a direct affront to the blacks of this nation. Forrest should be regarded as a racist of the first class and his statue melted down and deposited in the Tennessee river. Perhaps, the descendants of ex slaves should sue the modern government of Tennessee for reparations; that is, for a portion of the wealth that was created by the labor of their ancestors.
0 # coberly 2019-07-15 23:52
oh, well, i'll never convince you, but it needs to be said: you won't end racism by calling people racists.

as for "can only serve one purpose" you need to learn that "can only.." is the first step to enslaving your mind.

people like their war heroes. it's universal. Bedford Forrest may have been a bad person, or he may just have been a creature of his time and place... but he was a successful general who gave the South something to feel vicarious pride about by beating those they saw as invaders of their home. they won't like you for trying to take away that feeling of pride.

just the way you won't like me for trying to take away that feeling of outrage you enjoy.
0 # hereandnow 2019-07-16 01:45
It is amazing that this topic is still so divisive more than 150 years after the end of the American civil war. If you don't mind it seems to me that there was really no end to that civil war in the classic sense of the end of a war. Yes, the military campaigns ended, the political integrity of the still young country was reestablished, but something very important did not happen. The burning embers of the reasons for that war, about slavery of course but, not only, were never put out. Many of the losers of that civil war and their descendants have never felt that they were equally part of that new country moving forward. The US after the civil war was a different country, though not divided politcally, it was divided by the feelings of victory and righteousness of the Northerners and defeat and humiliation of the Southerners. The resistance of the South to let go of thier former beliefs, heros and ways of seeing the world have not so much to do with slavery as with an attempt at keeping thier respect. To this day there was never a movement of reconcilation with all that that entails, such as what happened in South Africa after the end of Apartheid. And remember that the US supported South Africa politically and economically in all of its horror up to the of Apertheid. INHO the US is still a divided country because of its inability to understand what happened after the end of the Civil War and to have worked to heal the wounds on all sides.
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-16 06:56
Issues like this present very difficult problems. To be sure, there should be no Nathan Bedford Forrest holiday or commemoration. But he is part of the truth of history. Not to know who he is and what happened in his time is also destructive.

I fear that we always go after the very obvious symbols of slavery and genocide at the roots of the United States. And such crusades helps to occlude the more subtle but actually more significant use of slavery and genocide which built the US.

Why is much of the upper northwest still dedicated to George Custer and the genocidal wars against Indigenous Americans? All of the US was taken from Indians by killing them or moving them to concentration campus (aka reservations). We still memorialize the killing of Indians, even on Columbus Day.

US banking emerged to finance the slave trade and the sale of crops produced by slaves -- cotton, tobacco, sugar. Most of the older institutions (Yale, Harvard, Ivy League colleges) were built with slave money. Financial institutions like Brown Brothers were built with slave trade money.

If we tear down the statue of Forrest and the KKK but do nothing about Brown University or Georgetown, then we are only continuing the rape of African Americans.

I'd much prefer just to change the way history is taught. Educate people in the truth of US history and then leave the statues of Forrest or colleges like Georgetwon alone. We know what they are.
0 # Glen 2019-07-16 06:59
It would appear there is no solution to end racism and outright support for violence and a coming type of revolution. It is being encouraged by the president, a number of his supporters, states, individual militias and hidden groups of revolutionaries throughout the U.S.

Racism is universal, but the U.S. is that bubbling cliche of simmering violence.
0 # Kootenay Coyote 2019-07-16 08:31
i.e.: Tennessee endorses & celebrates Terrorism: so long as it’s US Domestic Terrorism.

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