Controversies over honoring Confederate heritage are not uncommon in the South, but some activists in Mississippi are pushing the envelope even further. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans is proposing a license plate that honors Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Following the Civil War, Forrest was involved with the very first incarnation of the KKK. He was so closely associated with the group’s formation that he is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the KKK’s founder — though he was quickly elected Grand Wizard, and began centralizing disparate KKK groups under his authority. He believed that while blacks were now free, they had to continue to toil quietly for white landowners. “I am not an enemy of the negro,” Forrest said. “We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have.”
Perhaps even more disturbing, however, were Forrest’s violent actions during the Civil War, specifically a massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, TN in April 1864. When Forrest died in 1877, his obituary in the New York Times described how Forrest would forever be known for slaughtering black troops that already dropped their guns:
It is in connection with one of the most atrocious and cold-blooded massacres that ever disgraced civilized warfare that his name will for ever be inseparably associated. “Fort Pillow Forrest” was the title which the deed conferred upon him, and by this he will be remembered by the present generation, and by it he will pass into history. […]
Late in March he passed into that State, and the route of his advance was marked by outrages and brutalities of the most cold-blooded character….On the 12th of April he appeared before Fort Pillow. This fort was garrisoned by 500 troops, about half of them colored. Forrest’s force numbered about 5,000 or 6,000….The garrison was seized with a panic: the men threw down their arms and sought safety in flight toward the river, in the neighboring ravine, behind logs, bushes, trees, and in fact everywhere where there was a chance for concealment. It was in vain. The captured fort and its vicinity became a human shambles….The news of the massacre aroused the whole country to a paroxysm of horror and fury.
“Seriously?” state NAACP president Derrick Johnson said when he was told about the Forrest plate. “Wow.” Johnson went on to say that “[Forrest] should be viewed in the same light that we view Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The state of Mississippi should deny any vanity tags which would highlight racial hatred in this state.”
According to the Mississippi State Department of Revenue, legislators will have to approve the license plates. There is already precedent in the South for honoring Forrest, however — amidst considerable controversy, a statue of Forrest was erected in Nashville. There is also the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Benton County, TN. Defenders of Forrest note that, late in life, he quit the KKK and seemed to moderate his views on race. “If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words,” said one defender of the license plates.