Saturday, September 29, 2012

Songs and Statues: Unraveling the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park

                If I have learned anything from this class so far, it is that life is profoundly complex. Just when you seem to have a grasp on one particular perspective or idea, another one reveals itself to you, begging for attention. There is no black or white definition to comfort us, no objective truth to fall back on. The fact is that history—our stories—is relentlessly complex. Uncomfortable with our own complexity, we have historically labeled and categorized our surroundings—desperately trying to make sense of things. We don’t want to remember real people; we would much prefer heroes and villains, oppressors and victims. Those categories seem to make things a little easier. One of the ways that we simplify our history is in the way we remember war veterans. The tale of war is seductively simple: there is a noble good group who fights the bad group. The good group wins and we remember them forever. But as we have learned in our class, war, particularly the Civil War, was not that simple.
                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:


  1. As you stated before, nothing in life can be broken down into simple black and white, yes or no terms. The statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest is of course no different. This situation is particularly difficult to contemplate because we do not want our opinions of whether the statue should stand or not to reflect poorly on our own morality. In my opinion, the statue should continue to stand. No man or woman honored by any memorial is entirely noble. Every single one of them has flaws (some more so than others) that we could argue make them unworthy of admiration. However, it is not these flaws that the memorial stands to pay tribute. The words written on the statue show that Forrest is being honored for his bravery and dedication to his country during war, not for his affiliation with the Klu Klux Klan. That aspect of him is left out, not specifically so that we can forget it, but because we do not want to honor it because we recognize it as wrong. I think it is important for states once a part of the confederacy to recognize those who fought diligently during the civil war. Even though the war was lost, the confederacy collapsed, and many occurrences of the time are now seen as appalling, men did fight nobly for their country and they should not be forgotten.

  2. When first reading this post, my immediate reaction was that this statue had no right to stand. And I had this immediate response once I read about Forrest being the Grand Wizard for the early Klu Klux Klan. But I am ambivalent on whether or not this statue has the right to stand. To me a statue is something that should be honorably earned, and given to a person for their overall good character and conduct. Although the statue is not honoring or even recognizing his participation in the KKK, I do not think that it is something that should be overlooked, which I feel is being done not only with him but all our founding fathers. However, it is true that history cannot be changed, and I agree with what has been already stated, no hero is entirely noble or moral. And we have seen prime examples of this in our founding fathers. Memorials and statues are a way of showcasing the achievement of an individual, and it is a reminder of where we as a country have come from, and praises those who have helped us get to where we are today. In reality there is no perfect leader because it is human nature to have personal flaws and act on them. In terms of what we have been learning in class, I feel like there is a link between our past and now, speaking in terms of racial difference. And this post made me wonder how the situation would be looked at if the “color” of the individual was different. Meaning, if there was a statue of a black hero and something of a negative connotation was brought up about him, would it be so easy for society to disregard the negative and still look at him as a positive leader. Or would it be more of a debate as to whether the statue deserves to stand or not. Not trying to make this a white vs black thing, but rather an observation.

  3. Dr. Elizabeth Thomas mentioned this topic in one of our previous classes. It was a major debate in the Memphis area, and it instigated conflicts between the mayor and the city council over who held the power to rename parks and public spaces. This conflict also brought about questions regarding identity and racial polarization. However, in the end, Mayor Herenton advocated the maintenance of the park as a tribute to Memphis's history when he stated, "As mayor of Memphis, I am mayor of all people. And these parks represent the Old South...I am interested in moving toward a New South...In the aftermath of the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in our city we do not need another event that portrays Memphis nationally as a city still racially polarized and fighting the Civil War all over again" (Rushing 76). However, many attribute the Mayor's decision to avoiding conflict with the Klan, who had stated that if Forrest and his wife's burial ground was moved then they would "show up in full Regalia and conduct a funeral at Elmwood Cemetery." This would lead to international media coverage of the procession, which means more negative publicity for Memphis.

    For more information: See Wanda Rushing's book Memphis and the Paradox of Place

  4. In another one of my classes, Black & White women in the American South, we actually examined controversial statues and memorials in Memphis. While doing research, I found this memorial and immediately thought that it should not stand. Why should we preserve the memory of the Father of the Ku Klux Klan? This organization killed thousands of innocent blacks in the South. Besides that, Nathan became rich by trading slaves. It is very ironic how we may immortalize a man for his "noble" fight to keep an entire race enslaved. From my viewpoint, I see no reason for us to continue to allow this statue to stand. It does nothing but remind us about the horrendous past.