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Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest Raises Old Controversy in Nashville

Considered by many the most brilliant cavalryman of the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) is still exciting controversy in his home state of Tennessee, and particularly in Nashville. On July 11, 1998, a new statue honoring Forrest was unveiled in a private confederate flag park. It can be seen along Interstate 65, just north of Brentwood. The citizens of Nashville responded in characteristically mixed fashion to the unveiling. Some have spoken out adamantly in favor of the statue; others have descried it as homage to a brute. The mixed response provoked by the statue is not unique to contemporary times. As far back as the Civil War, Tennesseans were divided in their loyalties to the Confederacy. The state of Tennessee supplied 100,000 men to the Southern Army, more than any other state. However, it also supplied 50,000 men to the Union Army, more than nine northern states.

Nashville remains a city divided by race. Most churches are segregated by choice, as are most neighborhood communities. North Nashville is considered "black"; west Nashville is "white." As recently as the early eighties, there were so few African-American students at Vanderbilt University that a black man on campus after dark was considered a "suspect" by campus security. To say that Nashville is segregated isn't to say anything that is unique to it as an American City. Nor it is to say that the climate of relations isn't improving. The status of race relations in the U.S. hinges, it seems, on the race of the individual being queried. A 1997 Gallup Poll shows that white Americans consistently downplay the significance of race in determining job and housing opportunities. Black Americans, by contrast, believe the effects of race are more profound and pervasive. For example, according to the Gallup Poll, 46% of the blacks polled believed they have the same chance as whites in getting a job; asked the same question, a whopping 79% of whites believed that blacks enjoy an equal opportunity in getting a job.

The discrepancy in perspectives on race is reflected in the controversy over the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Nashville. Although Nashville's daily newspaper, The Tennessean, made an effort to balance its presentation so it would not seem that it was only whites who supported the NBF memorial, or only blacks who opposed it, the skew of opinions clearly seemed to fall along those lines. Indeed, The Tennessean ran an article the day after the unveiling that seems to suggest the overt racism of at least some of the NBF supporters. A 71-year old South Carolina man who attended the unveiling was quoted by the paper as claiming that his experience in living in an integrated community for 17 years convinced him that "the mixing of the races doesn't work." He went on to attribute hate and crime to blacks who, the South Carolina man was quoted as saying, "are primarily criminal as a group." Whether or not it was the intention of the newspaper to discredit the NBF memorial gathering, ending the article with such a quote does undermine the credibility of the NBF supporters who try to rationalize NBF's track record with blacks.

So, what about Nathan Bedford Forrest? One historian labeled him, "the clear, unfettered genius of the Civil War." Others see him as a racist monster, responsible for the massacre of blacks at Fort Pillow on April 30, 1864. Never asking his soldiers to go where he wouldn't himself, he had 29 horses shot out from under him. He entered the Confederate forces a private and left it a general. On the other hand, he helped start the organization known as the KKK and served as its head from 1867-1869.


Perhaps because he is such a figure of controversy, NBF excites the imaginations of many Americans. Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane composed a recent Fourth of July list of the most fascinating Americans. He put Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubbman and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the top three spots. Guess who was in spot number ten? That's right--Nathan Bedford Forrest. And the columnist who compiled the top ten list is African American. William Faulkner once said, "the past isn't." While it might be tempting to take the man on the horse as a symbol that Nashville is stuck in its racist heritage, the art of the NBF memorial itself lends another interpretation. With an ironic twist that the Forrest supporters might not appreciate, the image they have erected seems to undercut its own message. Anyone seeing the crazed, pop-eyed look on the statue's face might wonder if the memorial is a homage, or a savage put-down. It is not a flattering portrait of a glorious war hero. Indeed, the statue's double-edged meaning makes the NBF memorial a more fitting emblem for Nashville than its erectors likely imagined. It's an emblem of a city still divided over race and what that division means--not just for its history, but for its present and future.


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