For a few weeks in 1905, before the statue was dedicated, Nathan Bedford Forrest and his horse were draped in a large white cloth. It occurred to a writer at the Memphis News-Scimitar that it looked as though the man and horse were once again clad in the “ghostly garb” of the Ku-Klux Klan. The thought thrilled him.
The journalist wrote that “the great leader of this secret clan rides once more” and was “calling his own to follow him again.” He imagined the ghosts of Confederate soldiers and Klansmen rising from their graves at Elmwood Cemetery and floating down to Forrest Park. Listen closely, he told his readers. That’s not a gust of wind — it’s the swearing of oaths by hooded Klansmen. That’s not a “rumble of thunder” — it’s the stamping of horses shrouded in white.
The Forrest memorial has been a source of controversy for several decades. The debate often centers around the facts of Forrest’s life: a man who became a millionaire in the slave trade, whose troops massacred a couple hundred U.S. soldiers (mostly black) at Fort Pillow when they were trying to surrender, and who was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan.
But the facts of Forrest’s life can be murky. You couldn’t become Memphis’s wealthiest slave trader without mastering the art of exaggeration and self-promotion. It’s hard to know for sure whether Forrest directly gave the order to massacre the U.S. soldiers at Fort Pillow. And the Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s was less centrally organized than the Klan of the 1920s and 1930s — if Forrest was in fact the Grand Wizard, it was likely a ceremonial role.
In the end, however, it matters less what Forrest did while he was alive than what he meant for the people who thought he was worth memorializing in 1905. And this is pretty easy to figure out.
Statue erected to remind black Memphians of their place
The people who erected the statue of Forrest did so to celebrate white supremacy.
They wanted black Memphians to remember their proper place, and that the spirit of the Klan could always rise again if they forgot their place. Perhaps not in the same form — rather than a hooded man on horseback, the Klan might return in the form of a stringent voter ID law or an exclusionary zoning ordinance — but with the same goal: to maintain the superiority of white folks over black folks.
Defenders of the Forrest monument often resort to a slippery-slope argument: if we take down Forrest, what will stop us from having to take down Washington or Jefferson, who after all were slaveholders? But despite those men’s sins, monuments to Washington and Jefferson were not built primarily to honor white supremacy. That’s why the history of the monument itself — and what the monument’s supporters believed — is important.
It should also give us pause when the Tennessee state legislature goes out of its way to prevent a majority-black city from removing monuments to white supremacy. Or when that same legislature re-enshrines Forrest’s birthday, July 13, as a state holiday. Why do they need to keep Forrest where he is?
Let’s start with what most white Tennesseans in 1905 believed about the Klan. Here’s the story they told: during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, black people were not prepared for freedom. They were not fit to be citizens. And the North knew this. Since former Confederate officers had lost the right to vote, there was a power vacuum in the South, and the North filled that vacuum with their unwitting pawns.
“Northern dominion,” the News-Scimitar claimed, “apotheosized the negro” — turned the black man into a kind of god — “and set misrule and devastation to humiliate” white people. It was these “chaotic conditions,” the News-Scimitar concluded, that “required the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan for the . . . honor and independence” of white southerners. And the Klan’s main goal was to suppress the black vote through violence and intimidation.
An 1899 biography of Forrest (“perhaps the best biography ever written” of the man, according to The Commercial Appeal) told the same story. The author was not sure Forrest was actually the leader of the Klan — but if he wasn’t, he should have been. The biographer believed the Klan’s actions were “perfectly justified” because African Americans had been “suddenly emancipated . . . and even invested with a certain authority.” Black people needed to be “frightened into docility and good behavior.”
The same story was also told by John P. Young, a Memphis judge who had fought under Forrest and later served as secretary of the Forrest Monument Association. In his 1912 history of Memphis, Young wrote that in the wake of emancipation, black people went around “stealing” and “burning” and generally terrorizing the white population. Thanks to the Klan, African Americans became afraid “to leave their houses at night.” Peace was, in Young’s opinion, restored.
This had all happened more than 30 years ago when the Forrest monument was erected. Why did white Memphians think they needed Forrest in 1905? Why were they happy to see him back on a horse and “calling his own to follow him again”?
The truth was that the work started by the Klan had not been finished.
The city had a small but thriving black middle class. One of Memphis’s wealthiest men was the black millionaire Robert Church Sr., who, when Tennessee passed a law segregating public streetcars, arranged for his family to travel on private streetcars.
Poll taxes and other state laws had made it harder for black people to vote, but they remained an important voting bloc, especially in Memphis where around 45 percent of the population was black.
Though the Democratic Party dominated state politics, there were enough black voters and enough white Republicans in East Tennessee that the Republican Party valued Tennessee as a potential swing state — similar to how Democrats today view Georgia or Texas.
In 1904 the Democratic presidential candidate won 54 percent of the vote in Tennessee, a far smaller margin of victory than in states like Alabama (73 percent) or Mississippi (91 percent). Indeed, the Republican presidential candidate narrowly won Tennessee in 1920. Black leaders like Robert Church therefore had sway in Washington, D.C., and could help Memphians get federal jobs.
In short, if white Memphians were to maintain their power over African Americans, they needed to be vigilant.
Episcopal bishop and Forrest supporter: Blacks must not get upper hand
This anxiety was expressed by many who supported the Forrest monument. The opening prayer at the monument’s dedication was given by Thomas Frank Gailor, the Episcopal bishop of Tennessee.
Two years earlier Gailor had told an audience in Chicago that black people were incapable of “self-government, without the inspiration and contact of a superior race.” He argued that white southerners were “doing the best thing for the negro” by discouraging him from trying to “get the upper hand in politics.”
It was God’s intention that the white race should rule over the black — indeed, as Gailor declared in 1907, a “white man who is not jealous for the purity of his blood and supremacy of his race is a degenerate.”
In her fiery book “Facts and Falsehoods Concerning the War on the South,” Memphis author Elizabeth Avery Meriwether argued that God had instilled in white people the instinct to preserve their race. Lincoln and the abolitionists were therefore defying God when they supported black voting rights — and even, she alleged, tried to force whites into subordination to the black race. It therefore made sense that Meriwether and her husband were active in the Klan in 1866, that her brother-in-law made a contribution to the Forrest monument, and that her book was published by a member of the Forrest Monument Association’s board of directors, just a year before the statue was unveiled.
The vice-president of the Forrest Monument Association was George Washington Gordon, a former Confederate general who had been far more involved in the Klan than Forrest. Gordon likely wrote the Klan’s constitution, which among other things required inductees to swear that they were “opposed to negro equality” and “in favor of a white man’s government.” In addition to raising money for the Forrest monument, Gordon was the commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans. (We’re more familiar now with its spinoff organization, the Sons of Confederate Veterans.)
Gordon gave the main address at the dedication ceremony. Before a crowd of 30,000, Gordon celebrated Forrest’s military brilliance, his devotion to his mother, his conversion to Christianity late in life. The only time Gordon referenced Forrest’s career as a slave trader was when he said Forrest “successfully established himself as a dealer in live stock and real estate.” Since slaves were considered personal property instead of real estate in antebellum Tennessee law, Gordon must have been including them as livestock.
Ironically, the most overtly white-supremacist speech given at the dedication ceremony was given by Cornelius A. Stanton, who during the Civil War had been a major in the Third Iowa Calvary. His speech attested to how powerful the ideology of white supremacy was, even for white northerners.
Stanton cast the Civil War in sentimental terms that avoided the hard reality of slavery. He implied it did not matter what the United States or the Confederacy fought for; what mattered was that soldiers in both armies fought bravely “for what they believed was right.” After all, he said, “they were of kindred blood,” and they had “fought with the same Anglo-Saxon valor.” It was God’s plan that the blood shed on both sides would make the nation stronger and more united.
Stanton’s vision was one in which the strength of the American nation outweighed any concern for black people’s freedom. The United States was ultimately a nation for white people, and the crowd at Forrest Park had come to celebrate men who “were of kindred blood” and who possessed “the same Anglo-Saxon valor” — completely ignoring the 180,000 black men who had fought for the United States, not to mention the supposed thousands of slaves whom neo-Confederates have only recently begun to claim fought for Dixie.
There was no place for black people in Stanton’s account of the Civil War. What place, then, did they have in America?
At his 1903 speech in Chicago, Thomas Gailor assured his audience that the South had “a place for the negro.” White southerners simply wanted “to be let alone” — they knew the black race best and knew what was best for them. And white northerners were largely won over by this argument.
Three years after the monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest was dedicated, George Gordon began lobbying for another monument — a national monument to all the enslaved African Americans who, during the Civil War, remained loyal to their masters. Gordon wanted a tribute to the slaves who had steadfastly worked the fields and protected their white families — the slaves who, we might assume, did not want to be emancipated.
This monument was never built, but it would have complemented the Forrest statue perfectly. The picture would have been complete: black people were meant to serve and white people were meant to rule. And Forrest specifically was a symbol of what would happen if black people tried to get too much power: they would be stamped underfoot.
A young black man who spoke at the #TakeEmDown901 meeting on June 20 said, “Memphis is a predominantly black city — so how they gonna put a racist statue right in the middle of where the black people are?”
Why did they do that? The answer is clear.
Bill Black is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and historian of religion, culture, and race in America. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamRBlack.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Read more from MLK50 about the Memphis fight to remove Confederate monuments.
- What it will take to dethrone the Confederacy from its place of honor? by MLK reporter Micaela Watts
• Hundreds Gather to Oppose to Memphis’ Confederate Monuments by MLK reporter Micaela Watts
• Resisting the Violence of Confederate Apologists by MLK50 guest writer Tami Sawyer.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.