Near downtown Memphis, there is a park that occupies about a block of urban space. I first visited it over the summer with a research program at Rhodes. It’s called the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. Forrest’s remains are kept here at this war memorial. The memorial is quite large—Forrest is atop a large horse looking confidently toward his destination. The memorial reads:
"Those hoof beats die not upon fame's crimson sod,
But will ring through her song and her story;
He fought like a Titan and struck like a god,
And his dust is our ashes of glory."
Forrest was a celebrated Confederate Civil War veteran known for his leadership against the North in battle. What is not noted at his memorial is the fact that Forrest was also responsible for the violent death of many black Union soldiers. He was also the first Grand Wizard of the early Klu Klux Klan. And yet, his proud gaze can be seen today in this part of Memphis. Forrest’s memorial epitomizes the complexity that we have encountered in our class so far. Forrest’s great grandson, who is intimately connected to his great-grandfather's story, has responded to the controversy of the statue by saying that “you can’t change history.” And those words do have some merit; our history is in fact unchangeable. However, the way that we remember it and the way that we preserve it are in our control. Other protesters have argued that it is ridiculous to preserve and honor the name of a murderer. The organization that supports Forrest memorials, Friends of Forrest, claims that these protests have no weight or truth behind them. They claim that Forrest was a war hero and should be remembered as just that.
Memphis has been relatively tamer in responding to the statue. Selma, Alabama ruled that their Forrest memorial should not be rebuilt. The reality is that any memorial or statue is leaving things out—it is not recognizing the less-honorable or even abhorring parts of a complicated story. We are comfortable with statues because they are simple. They elevate a human to something that we can remember easily. In this case, we must not fall for the trap of a statue. We can’t just sing along to the song of the hooves of Forrest’s horse that is mentioned in the words of the memorial. Instead, we must examine our relationship to our history. Where do you stand? Do you think that Forrest’s statue should come down tomorrow? Or should it stay as a reminder of where we as a southern state have been? What is our relationship today to our history? Why do you think we erect memorials and statues? I hope that thinking about this statue helps you to frame some of the themes of the class as it has for me.
More info on Forrest memorials: