Memphis, History & Politics

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Memphis Monument to White Supremacy

Ever since I was a kid something has always seemed unexplained about the monuments to Confederate Generals such as the one of Nathan Bedford Forrest in a City Park in Memphis. Even back when I accepted these monuments at face value, as an honor to a hero, it never made complete sense that they were done as monuments to victors.  The over the top grand statues of Richmond’s Monument Avenue  , Stone Mountain’s Confederate version of Mt. Rushmore and Forrest’s statue all show the heroes sitting serenely and looking out to a place they help build.  The Confederates are not shown in defiance or mention a yet to be obtained liberty as is found with statues of William Wallace, for example.  The idea that the Civil War was now a “lost cause” came about almost immediately at the end of the Civil War, but no Confederate is shown with a hint of defeat as the famous End of the Trail statue in tribute to the “doomed fate” of Native Americans.   In fact these and other Confederate Monuments built around the turn of the Twentieth Century celebrate the victory not of the Civil War, but of segregation as the economic and social replacement for the loss of slavery, in short the Jim Crow Economy.

Artist's model now in the Pink Palace Museum

Fear of a Free African American Population Lead the Ex-Confederates at First to Use Terror and then Segregation
Memphis immediately after the Civil War saw a rebuilding of government and business by African-Americans and whites. Public transportation, neighborhoods, the school board, even the police force were integrated. Racial hostility existed among poor whites. A three day riot broke out which began as a conflict between Irish policemen and African-American ex Union soldiers. African-American owned businesses were targeted and 46 African-Americans were killed. A few years later, Memphis suffered a loss of more than half its population because of the yellow-fever epidemics either through the disease itself or families fleeing the city never to return. By the time the epidemics were over in the 1880s the previous community leaders had been largely replaced with a population both white and African-American from the regional rural areas. Racial hostility, which had existed all along, was now institutionalized from the top down and segregation was imposed by law.
While slavery was opposed by many outside of the slave-holding states before the Civil war and barely tolerated by the majority, segregation was openly embraced by the North. The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson gave the federal government’s blessing to “separate but equal” and segregation laws. The decision wasn’t even close with only Justice John Harlan dissenting. Before the Civil War most southern whites never owned a slave.  Nevertheless, the use of slavery was central to the South’s primarily agricultural economy. The Reconstruction period which prevented former confederates from the right to vote created the fear of an interruption in very cheap African-American labor. That fear supported a KKK that continued to rise in numbers and stature, bolstered by the association with the heroic ideal of General Forrest.

Forrest as the Hero of White Supremacy

Forrest died in 1877, an association to create a monument was created in 1891 and was it was ultimately dedicated in 1905. This period of time saw both the economic success of the Jim Crow Economy and the rise in nostalgia for the KKK. Thomas Dixon published The Clansman in 1905.  The second in his highly popular KKK trilogy. A play based on the book and the subsequent movie led the revivial of the KKK. Segregation replaced slavery as the necessary institution to preserve the "Southern way of life." Consider the fact that once slavery was abolished, no subsequent efforts to either re-institute it or to secede occurred in the South. There was no need because the institution and economic need had been effectively replaced and the KKK was given credit as the forefather to the new economy. No figure at the time was associated more with the KKK than Forrest. And no person was more responsible for this association than General George Gordon. As a former Confederate General practicing law in Pulaski, Tennessee he was a founder of the KKK, and he wrote their precepts, or constitution. The most popular story, now and then, of how Forrest became a member and leader of the KKK involve Gordon visiting Forrest at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville and persuading him that he and the KKK shared the same cause.  By 1891 Gordon had moved to Memphis to become our City's school superintendent. Memphis was where Forrest had made his fortune in the slave trade before the war and where he returned after the war to try his hand at other businesses. Gordon was a founder of the Forrest Monument Association and it's chief fundraiser. His efforts were successful enough that the monument also came to be the new resting place of Forrest's and his wife's remains.

Contemporary Accounts Leave No Doubt the Monument Stood for White Supremacy

On April 30 , 1905, about 2 weeks before the dedication, the statue stood covered in white cloth. A local daily newspaper, the Memphis News-Scimitar, ran an illustration along with a creepy, chilling piece of prose as an ode comparing the statue now to the robed Klansmen Forrest once commanded.
Out of the past and back from the mysterious state which men call death, Forrest has come to his own again. Stalwart, strong and invincible, he sits erect on King Phillip, overlooking Forrest Park and turning his eagle eye toward the south just as he was wont to do forty years ago when the chaotic conditions of life required the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan for the protection of the honor and independence of Southern social conditions.
Clad in his old Ku Klux garb, a pall of white that covered horse and rider the great leader of this secret clan rides once more by night, in moonlight or starlight, calling his own to follow him again. It may be only a mirage of a war-loving brain that peoples the park again with special men in ghostly garb, but when the midnight hour rings clear across the stillness of the sleeping city the greensward becomes an arena where rank by rank, file by file, the old members of the clan come to follow their leader again crossing and recrossing from the shadow of the trees to the wider open spaces of light, quiet, irresistible, determined as of old. From the widely scattered graves they come, the green doors of the turf swinging noiselessly back, and horse and rider coming down the long lanes of the past to answer the call of that leader whose iron hand held the reins of safety over the South when Northern dominion apotheosized the negro and set misrule and devastation to humiliate a proud race.  From far and near they come, for who of his old men would not come if Forrest would but call?
One by one they come from the long green aisles that lead the way to the graves of the Confederate dead in Elmwood, and shod in silence they weave their way across the streets of the sleeping city to the open place in the park , where their leader waits. From Lonely graves down in the valey they come again, the long white garb fluttering in the night wind – did you think it only a cloud you saw?
Old men rise from their sleep in comfortable homes, from soldiers’ refuges and from hospital beds, and in their dreams ride out to meet him again. To watch the park would disappoint you, for the mortal eye may see the soldier-spirit that comes again to its own? You would see only mist-wreaths blowing hither and yon, from shadow to shadow where a file of ghostly men of the Ku Klux Klan performed again their intricate evolutions; you would hear only a sigh of the wind where the stern warriors repeated in concert the great binding oath of the order: you would hear only the scamper of tiny animal feet or the sleepy call of a night-bird where the men called together of deeds to be done or wrongs to be avenged; you would hear only the faint rumble of thunder where the great company of horses trampled with pad-softened hoofs across the time hardened turf and granolith walk.  A phantasy of the brain, you will say, for only to those who know will the spectral throng and its meaning be known. Only to those can the mysteries of the night be interpreted, for by day one sees only a stalwart figure in bronze and stone draped stil in its sculptor’s canvas waiting for the cord to be drawn that will reveal a fitting memorial to a man who served his country with honor and distinction and with his sword carved his name on the wall of the temple of fame in those days long ago “when knighthood was in flower.” A.B.

At the dedication ceremony, Gen. Gordon was the featured speaker who recounted Forrest exploits, but leaving out any direct reference to either Forrest's slave trading or the KKK. Not so restrained was another featured speaker, Tennessee Senator A.B. Turley. His speech included this strident statement: "the principles of the cause for which Forrest fought are not dead, and they will live as long as there is a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood on the face of the earth." The Forrest monument shows they wholly believed white supremacy was the path started by Forrest and the KKK and their dedication with this monument showed that Memphis and the South were determined to stay on that path.

What to do with this Monument Now

In 2015, the Memphis City Council voted 11 to 1 to remove the statue and move Mr. and Mrs. Forrest's remains back to Elmwood Cemetery where they were first buried.  The City of Richmond which built similar monuments in the same time period to Confederate Army Commander Gen. Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis and others is presently going through the same debate. Here, however, Forrest's statue is unlikely to ever be moved and I'm not convinced that would even be the best thing to do. In order to move a grave, the heirs must agree, and indications are that Forrest's descendant's will not consent. More importantly, the historical meaning of Forrest's monument has been clouded, white-washed you might say, by present day admirers who idolize Forrest and have mythologized his story. They want to erase his slave trading business, his atrocities during the war, his leadership of the KKK and his support of Jim Crow laws. To remove the statue is to leave out one of the most influential aspects of our City's history. Knowing this history, you can't deny it's impact on the City today. The monument should not be moved, but added to so that the Memphis of 1905 can be seen for future generations for what it proudly and defiantly was meant to be. I would have the general view of the monument from below be blocked and made level with Forrest as the photo above. Take away the "monumental" effect and give an accurate view of history, literally and figuratively.

Memphis Commercial Appeal August 12, 2015. A volunteer tries to remove graffiti 


Tim Bounds: Remembering Nathan Bedford Forrest: White Supremacy and the Memphis Monument. This paper provided much of the original research which made me want to write this article. It is under a Creative Commons license. I cannot find it anywhere else available on the web, so I posted it on my server.


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