|Health Sciences Park|
There was a Ku Klux Klan rally in Overton Park during the mid-sixties, I can't remember the specific date, where they did the night-time cross burning and the whole deal. It was quite the white-robed spectacle and my teenage friends and I attended in order to heckle the rubes. The Klan no longer appeared frightening in their customary outfits, merely ridiculous. Because, we understood that beneath the hood was just another cracker-ass redneck with a chaw between his teeth and gums and a tin of Red Man in his back pocket. A speech was delivered by Robert Shelton, the Klan Grand Wazoo, who shortly before had granted an extensive interview to Playboy magazine, which I read between the centerfold and naked girly pictures. Even as a teen, I was convinced he was a damned fool. So the clown show that is coming to Memphis in March is way past the day when they intimidated anyone and an embarrassment even to an organization like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Klan, however, is riding in defense of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, only the General would not approve.
O Lord, please don't force me to write about Nathan Bedford Forrest at the end of Black History Month. Let this cup pass from me. You see, I was born in Memphis, where the very mention of the name Forrest brought either a visceral loathing or a wistful admiration, depending on the individual. There is nothing defensible about an illiterate, bad-tempered, racist slave trader who made a fortune dealing in human bondage, but the Forrest name was such a lightening rod for controversy, I decided to read a couple of books about him. The most informative was "That Devil Forrest" by John Allan Wyeth. Although Wyeth was a Confederate soldier and Southern sympathizer, his biography contains first-hand, eyewitness testimony from the combatants. The book tends to gloss over some of the most glaring accusations of evil towards Forrest. After all, slavery is a crime against humanity second only to genocide, and for that there can be no recompense. The single thing that historians all agree upon, however, is that Forrest was a born soldier. General William T. Sherman, no friend of the South, said that Forrest was, "the most remarkable man the civil war produced on either side. He was the only soldier who entered the war as a private and emerged as a general and his fearlessness in battle was legendary. In close combat, Forrest killed thirty foes, had twenty-nine horses shot from beneath him, and was wounded four times. What the civil war historians admire about Forrest was his unflinching courage.
I don't have a personal stake in this racial strife since my ancestors didn't own slaves; they were slaves. The family story passed down from my father's side was that my great-grandfather immigrated from Bavaria to avoid the occasional pogrom. He landed in New York in the unfortunate year of 1861, and before he could join relatives in Memphis, he was conscripted into the Union army. So after all those years of Tennessee history classes, it seems the only dog I had in this fight did his soldiering for the North. Even as a schoolboy, I was also a Southerner, so I was perplexed and had to wonder, "You mean our side lost?" That's an adjustment for a child who knows nothing of the war's particulars but only the region in which he lives. Consequently, I was thrilled by stories of Forrest's raid on Union occupied Memphis, when he chased General Washburn from the Gayosa Hotel in his nightshirt. There's still a street called Escape Alley in honor of the event, yet no one has suggested changing that name. I look as an objective observer at the current controversy over the Memphis City Council's decision to rename the parks memorializing the Confederacy. I can understand the wounded Southern soul descended from gray uniformed soldiers, as well as the constant irritant Forrest Park is to the citizens of a city that is over sixty percent African-American. Bedford, as he was called, was an unrepentant white supremest, and to have his glorified tomb in the center of the city is galling to most. But, it is history, regardless of how ugly that history may be, and renaming monuments or parks does not change that.
The upcoming Klan rally will eulogise their founder and first Grand Wizard, although the Klan in which Forrest belonged was born in 1867 and officially disbanded in 1869. Testifying before a Congressional hearing, Forrest said the KKK was formed as "a protective political military organization," primarily to fill a lawless void and oppose the war profiteering of Reconstruction. When its members became night-riders and terrorists against black citizens, Forrest resigned and lobbied for the organization's dissolution. It's no wonder that the state senator that tried to freeze Confederate monument names in place is from Parker's Crossroads. That's the location halfway between Memphis and Nashville where Forrest's cavalry was surrounded by Union troops and he did the unthinkable by dividing his forces in half and charging in two directions at once. I used to stop at the general store there on my frequent trips to Nashville to restock on Confederate memorabilia. They have a huge portrait of the General hanging in the store, but once I had read about what transpired there, I was no longer offended. This is the stuff of legend, where Forrest's abilities as an unschooled military tactician were unmatched. Still, they don't erect statues of General Erwin Rommel in Berlin.
Personally, I don't care if they disinter Bedford and the Missus and move them back to Elmwood Cemetery where they were first buried. There's already a Forrest State Park near Camden that offers boating, fishing, and hiking. It just all seems so unnecessary. Why call a city park Health Sciences Park with a dead man there? The Memphis location could be used for reflection, especially upon the end of Forrest's life when, in 1875, he was invited to speak before a group of black Southerners advocating racial reconsiliation and the General espoused an agenda of equality and harmony between the races. Oh, you say you didn't know that? Most folks don't. Perhaps Forrest's transformation from a conciousless slave trader to an advocate of inter-racial peace is a story of redemption, like Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road. Both men were knocked off their horses. There is no way to temper the sins of N.B. Forrest. He said, "War means fighting, and fighting means killing," and he was a ruthless killer. When he saw that the Confederate cause was lost, he told his troops, "humanity demands that no more blood be shed." In a farewell address, the "unlettered General" said, "Civil War, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings..Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, society, or to individuals, meet them like men. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which we have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous." Were the Memphis City Council only so generous. If it's wrong to kick a man when he's down, what does it say to kick him when he's dead?