Saturday is “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” in Tennessee, according to a proclamation signed Friday by Gov. Bill Lee (R).
Forrest, for those who may not know their Civil War history, was a Confederate general who was elected to be the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Forrest’s bust is on display at the Tennessee State Capitol, and as Lee pointed out, there is a 1969 law on the books that requires governors of Tennessee to issue proclamations for six days of observation, including July 13 as Forrest Day. Two other days also pertain to the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis’ birthday and a day to honor Robert E. Lee.
Lee said that changing this law was not something he thought about. The law passed during a time when a backlash to the civil rights movement saw a perverse resurgence in efforts to honor Confederate historical figures.
“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” he said when asked about it, according to the Tennessean.
Politicians from both parties spoke out against the proclamation.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said on Twitter Friday evening that Lee “should be bringing Tennessee into the 21st Century not backsliding into the 19th.”
We should not be honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the perpetrator of the massacre at Fort Pillow. Gov. Lee should be bringing #Tennessee into the 21st century not backsliding into the 19th.https://t.co/w5RC7sHShx
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) July 12, 2019
Cohen noted that Forrest was the perpetrator of the 1864 massacre at Fort Pillow, in which troops commanded by Forrest killed 300 Union soldiers — 200 of them black members of the 16th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment — with an overwhelming Confederate force of 2,500 in Tennessee.
Cohen later tweeted, “Trees make up a forest not a Forrest who used trees for lynchings and making crosses for burning.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeted that Lee’s decision was “wrong,” though he also attempted a political attack on Democrats by giving a nod to the false narrative that the KKK was created by the 1860s Democratic party.
American history is complicated. As a general matter, we shouldn’t be tearing down historical statues or erasing our Founders, even though they were imperfect men. But we should also provide context where we can. And, we shouldn’t be issuing proclamations today honoring Klansmen. https://t.co/RwihClP4L7
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) July 12, 2019
Last year, David Thomas Sr., a senior official in the Department of Veterans Affairs was forced to remove a portrait of Forrest, entitled “No Surrender,” from his office after staff began a petition to ask the VA Secretary to force Thomas to remove it. Thomas said he had purchased the painting because he liked it and thought it just depicted a Confederate general, and he did not know that Forrest was a Grand Wizard of the KKK. Thomas’ senior staff is predominantly black.
President Donald Trump has been criticized for milquetoast responses to incidents involving white supremacists and the KKK — like in 2017, when he argued there were “some very fine people on both sides” following the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia and during the 2016 campaign, when he said “I don’t know anything about David Duke” when asked about Duke’s outspoken support for his candidacy.