Notes on an Imagined Plaque to be Added to the Statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Upon Hearing that the Memphis City Counci has Voted to Move it and the Exhumed Remains of General Forrest and his Wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their Current Location in a Park Downtown, to the Nearby Elmwood Cemetery
Episode 8 of the 2015 Summer Season
* Under the credits is Harlaamstrat 74 off of John Dankworth’s Modesty Blaise score.
* First up (and returning at the end) is Sandra’s Theme, from Heather McIntosh’s fantastic score to Compliance, a very good, very disturbing movie.
* We hit Frank Glazer leading Charles Ives’ Largo for Clarinet, Violin and Pianoa couple of times, framing…
* Runaway from Olafur Arnalds.
*The key to researching this episode turned out to be an article in The Journal of Southern History from 2001 by Court Carnay called, “The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest.”.
* Also particularly useful was Nathan Bedford Forrest: a Biography, by Jack Hurst.
* As was Lynching in America: A History in Documents, compiled by Christopher Waldrep.
* Much of my information about the contents of the ceremony and speeches was gathered from this, the digitized journal and scrapbook of Charles Henry Niehaus, the sculptor of the monument. It’s an extraordinary resource.
* And let us all read Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases, by Ida B. Wells. And let’s put her on the $10 while we’re at it.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation declaring July 13 Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Forrest was a Confederate general, slave trader and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.A Tennessee law dating back to 1971 mandates that the governor must issue proclamations for six state holidays each year, including days for Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee, CBS Nashville affiliate WTVF reported.
According to the Tennessee code, the governor must declare January 19 as “Robert E. Lee Day”; February 12 as “Abraham Lincoln Day”; March 15 as “Andrew Jackson Day”; June 3 as “Memorial or Confederate Decoration Day”; July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day”; and November 11, as “Veterans’ Day.”
“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” Lee said Thursday.
According to The Tennessean, Lee declined to say if he thought the state law should be changed — something Tennessee Democrats have been hoping would happen. Previous efforts by Democrats have failed.
“This a reminder of the painful and hurtful crimes that were committed against black people,” Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville told WTVF.
Dixie said he was previously unaware July 13 was Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee and criticized Lee’s decision to sign the proclamation.
“Now you’re signing a proclamation honoring the same people that fought to keep people that look like me, African Americans in slavery,” Dixie said.
There is a bust of Forrest in the state capitol and there is a highly-visible statue of him on Interstate 65. There have been calls to remove the bust. The statue, which is on private property, is frequently defaced.
Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism?
Why has the Republican Party become a systematic enabler of terrorism?
Don’t pretend to be shocked. Just look at G.O.P. responses to the massacre in El Paso. They have ranged from the ludicrous (blame video games!) to the almost honest (who would have expected Ted Cruz, of all people, to speak out against white supremacy?). But as far as I can tell, not one prominent Republican has even hinted at the obvious link between Donald Trump’s repeated incitements to violence and the upsurge in hate crimes.
So the party remains in lock step behind a man who has arguably done more to promote racial violence than any American since Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization if there ever was one — and who was recently honored by the Republican governor of Tennessee.
Anyway, the party’s complicity started long before Trump came on the scene. More than a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a surge of right-wing extremism. The report was prescient, to say the least. But when congressional Republicans learned about it, they went on a rampage, demanding the resignation of Janet Napolitano, who headed the agency, and insisted that even using the term “right-wing extremism” was unacceptable.
This backlash was effective: Homeland Security drastically scaled back its efforts to monitor and head off what was already becoming a major threat. In effect, Republicans bullied law enforcement into creating a safe space for potential terrorists, as long as their violent impulses were motivated by the right kind of hatred.
No, not exactly. No doubt some members of Congress, and a significant number of Trump administration officials, very much including the tweeter in chief, really are white supremacists. And a much larger fraction — almost surely bigger than anyone wants to admit — are racists. (Recently released tapes of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon reveal that the modern G.O.P.’s patron saint was, in fact, a crude racist who called Africans “monkeys.”)
But racism isn’t what drives the Republican establishment, and my guess is that a majority of the party’s elected officials find it a little bit repugnant — just not repugnant enough to induce them to repudiate its political exploitation. And their exploitation of racism has led them inexorably to where they are today: de facto enablers of a wave of white supremacist terrorism.
The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.
With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like
- Social Security,
- Medicaid and the
- Affordable Care Act.
So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.
For a long time, the G.O.P. establishment was able to keep this game under control. It would campaign using implicit appeals to racial hostility (welfare queens! Willie Horton!) but turn postelection to privatization and tax cuts.
But for some reason this bait-and-switch started getting less effective in the 2000s. Maybe it was the reality of America’s growing racial diversity; maybe it was the fact that American society as a whole was becoming less racist, leaving the hard-core racists feeling isolated and frustrated. And the election of our first black president really kicked hatred into overdrive.
The result is that there are more and more angry white people out there willing to commit mayhem — and able to do so because those same Republicans have blocked any effective control over sales of assault weapons.
A different, better G.O.P. might have been willing to acknowledge the growing threat and supported a crackdown on violent right-wing extremism, comparable to the F.B.I.’s successful campaign against the modern K.K.K. in the 1960s. A lot of innocent victims would be alive today if Republicans had done so.
But they didn’t, because admitting that right-wing extremism was a threat, or even a phrase law enforcement should be allowed to use, might have threatened the party’s exploitation of racial hostility to achieve its economic goals.
In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.
So as I said at the beginning, the G.O.P. has become a systematic enabler of terrorism. Why? Follow the money.
Will Progressives erase the history of their racist heroes, or only their racist enemies?
.. Much of the country has demanded the elimination of references to, and images of, people of the past — from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee — who do not meet our evolving standards of probity. In some cases, such damnation may be understandable if done calmly and peacefully — and democratically, by a majority vote of elected representatives.
.. Few probably wish to see a statue in a public park honoring Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan, or Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in the racist Dred Scott decision that set the stage for the Civil War four years later.
But cleansing the past is a dangerous business. The wide liberal search for more enemies of the past may soon take progressives down hypocritical pathways they would prefer not to walk.
In the present climate of auditing the past, it is inevitable that Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood will have to be disassociated from its founder. Sanger was an unapologetic racist and eugenicist who pushed abortion to reduce the nonwhite population.
.. Should we ask that Ruth Bader Ginsburg resign from the Supreme Court? Even with the benefit of 21st-century moral sensitivity, Ginsburg still managed to echo Sanger in a racist reference to abortion (“growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of”).
Why did we ever mint a Susan B. Anthony dollar? The progressive suffragist once said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Liberal icon and Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren pushed for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II while he was California’s attorney general.
President Woodrow Wilson ensured that the Armed Forces were not integrated. He also segregated civil-service agencies. Why, then, does Princeton University still cling to its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs? To honor a progressive who did a great deal of harm to African-American causes?
In the current logic, Klan membership certainly should be a disqualifier of public commemoration. Why are there public buildings and roads still dedicated to the late Democratic senator Robert Byrd, former “exalted cyclops” of his local Klan affiliate, who reportedly never shook his disgusting lifelong habit of using the N-word? Why is Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, once a Klansman, in the 20th century, still honored as a progressive hero?
.. Are the supposedly oppressed exempt from charges of oppression? Farm-labor icon Cesar Chavez once sent union thugs to the border to physically bar U.S. entry to undocumented Mexican immigrants, whom he derided as “wetbacks” in a fashion that would today surely earn Chavez ostracism by progressives as a xenophobe.
.. What is the ultimate purpose of progressives condemning the past? Does toppling the statue of a Confederate general — without a referendum or a majority vote of an elected council — improve racial relations? Does renaming a bridge or building reduce unemployment in the inner city?
.. Does selectively warring against the illiberal past make us feel better about doing something symbolic when we cannot do something substantive? Or is it a sign of raw power and ego when activists force authorities to cave to their threats and remove images and names in the dead of night? Does damning the dead send a flashy signal of our superior virtue?
To me, the answer to Mr. Trump’s question begins with a straightforward test: Was the person to whom a monument is erected on public property devoted to the American experiment in liberty and self-government? Washington and Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were. Each owned slaves; each was largely a creature of his time and place on matters of race. Yet each also believed in the transcendent significance of the nation, and each was committed to the journey toward “a more perfect Union.”
.. By definition, the Confederate hierarchy fails that test. Those who took up arms against the Union were explicitly attempting to stop the American odyssey.
.. Monuments in public places of veneration to those who believed it their duty to fight the Union have no place in the Union of the 21st century — a view with which Lee himself might have agreed. “I think it wiser,” he wrote in 1866, “not to keep open the sores of war.”
.. In 1973, the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised money to install a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Southern cavalry commander and early leader of the Klan, in the state capitol.