DRESDEN, Tenn., July 16, 2015– On Monday, Tennessee recognized and celebrated the life of Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest. On this day, a democratic State Representative from Nashville decided to introduce a bill to end Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. In Memphis, the city council recently voted to exhume the grave of General Forrest and his wife. While I want to believe those wishing to take action have good intentions; they are, for the most part, misinformed.
The very idea of treating someone differently and not awarding them the same opportunities because of the color of their skin is absolutely disgusting. Were he alive today, General Forrest would agree. In fact, General Forrest was one of the South’s first civil rights leaders– a fact lost on many politicians looking to capitalize off of the South Carolina tragedy.
Through Christ, we are called to believe in and celebrate redemption. When we recognize the life of General Forrest, we are doing just that– celebrating the life of a man, redeemed through Christ, that fought for the rights of black West Tennesseans.
After the war, General Forrest spoke with federal authorities controlling Memphis and the Memphis Board of Aldermen to plead with them to train young blacks so that they would not be dependent on government. He argued that blacks were just as capable as whites to be doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc.. The same Memphis city leaders wanting to exhume his grave today, ignored his calls for allowing blacks equal opportunities then. However, that didn’t stop General Forrest from living his own life as an example. General Forrest was CEO of Selma, Marion & Memphis Railroad. As CEO, General Forrest hired and trained hundreds of former slaves. He even granted them leadership positions within the company.
Those that wish to stoke the fires of racial tension in America claim that General Forrest was the founder of the “KKK”. This is not true. The Ku Klos of the mid-1860s was founded by Judge Thomas Jones, Frank McCord and several other Confederate veterans. Two years after its founding, General Forrest was elected grand wizard of the organization. However, he never dressed in costume. Additionally, no evidence exists showing that General Forrest participated in any Klan activity at all. In fact, only two years after being elected grand wizard, General Forrest ordered that all costumes and symbols be destroyed, and that the Klan be dismantled because it had become a racist organization. In fact, recognizing his will to exercise “moral authority”, the United States Congress recognized General Forrest’s efforts to dismantle the Klan in 1871.
In 1875, the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early civil rights organization in Memphis, invited General Forrest to speak at their Fourth of July BBQ. Ignoring the advice of many white friends urging him not to attend, General Forrest accepted the invitation with an open heart. “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,” declared General Forrest. After a speech that championed equality, unity and love, as large crowd of blacks roared with applause, a young black girl presented General Forrest with a bouquet of flowers, which he thanked her with kiss on the cheek. When General Forrest passed away, his funeral was attended by more than 3,000 blacks wishing to honor his life.
Those interested in actually mending racial tension in Tennessee, rather than pandering for quick political points, should be singing the praises of General Forrest. We should be teaching the story of General Forrest to every last school child, not digging up his grave in an attempt to rewrite history. To do so, does absolutely nothing to improve race relations. In fact, to exhume the grave of a civil rights leader should be viewed by those seeking to improve race relations as a hostile action. By the will of his own conscious, not the force of government, General Forrest exemplified redemption, love, compassion and reconciliation. This is why we celebrate the life of General Forrest. As long as I am in office, because my conscious and faith compel me to fight for unity, I will continue to honor the life of General Forrest.