Let us honor Nathan Bedford Forrest as an example for Memphis, the South and the nation.
Because as a slave trader, traitor to our country, founding member of the klan and ultimately advocate for integration, he represents both the ugliest part of our past and the hope for a better future.
But which Forrest do we honor?
Is it as the traitor who brilliantly fought for slavery, injustice and the disuniting of the states as is represented by the statue embalming him as a triumphant warrior forever fighting against integration and equality?
Or is it the Forrest who in his last public speech to an organization of Black Southerners said, “When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.”
Let us honor the latter Forrest and take him up on his offer to serve African Americans by retiring his statue peacefully and working to build a united city, region and country.
Next let’s work to make Memphis a monument to inclusion, respect and economic equality like he wanted as he outlined in his speech, “I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going… 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.
Taking the statues down is the first step toward living up to his words from over 100 years ago and at least removes some of the most visible segregationist iconography from Memphis.
For those who decry the erasing of history and dishonoring Forrest, I think Forrest himself would argue that the statue of him on the horse is a bronze straight jacket forever casting him as a traitor fighting for disunity and oppression and erases his evolution and vision for, “one flag, one country…together.”
He would argue that the statue is a symbol of a past that he left behind and that the history we should remember him for is the embrace and bouquet he received from a Black woman, “Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states.”
But that statue doesn’t exist. In fact, statues or any reminders honoring the Africans, African-Americans who suffered endlessly to build the South and fight for equality are almost non existent. Instead we have triumphalist symbols transforming the South’s traitorous choosing of slavery into a noble cause.
Imagine, if Germans, instead of having shrines highlighting the horror and shame brought on by the Nazi regime, they dotted the German landscape with statues dedicated to Hitler and the soldiers who fought for the glorious vision of the Third Reich?
What if the officer quarters at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp became a romantic symbol of the lifestyle of the Nazi elite, while the horrors of the shackled, half-starved inmates who could, and were, beaten, raped, ripped from their families, was completely ignored? Instead they became a setting for romantic wedding and architectural tours?
As Americans, how would you feel knowing our men and women, who sacrificed so much to stop the spread of Nazism, only to see the. horrors of the Nazis transformed into elegant tea parties and triumphant statues honoring the SS?
Unfortunately, that’s what has happened here in America. Plantations, instead of being remembered for the concentration camps they were, have become tourist traps, marketed as symbols of Southern gentility in movies and brochures. Statues dot the landscape, not in memory to the horrors of war, the devastation brought on by traitorous actions or to the tragedy of slavery, but instead to honor those who fought for the noble cause of slavery and attempting to destroy the United States of America!
So while I’m glad my beloved Memphis has taken down these affronts to the ideals of America, it’s not enough to wash away the original sin of the United States. To truly honor the past, we need to honor the sacrifices of those who fought, suffered and died to keep America whole and end slavery. We need to erect monuments to the sacrifices, endurance and ingenuity of the millions of enslaved Africans and African-Americans who built the South and to the men and women who fought for democracy and justice so that we can all enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of race.
More importantly, we must actively make our businesses, organizations and friend circles monuments to justice and liberty for all. We must do like Forrest did later in his life and go out of our way to embrace diversity and fight against injustice.
In this divided time let us embrace the last words of Forrest, “We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers?”
So for those of us that say we are desecrating his memory by removing his statue, I believe we are honoring his wishes to serve us one last time.