I don’t remember learning about Klansman and slaver Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Memphis City Schools in the 1980s.
In fact, I don’t think I was aware that the Confederate general, astride an equestrian statue, occupied a place of prominence in a city park until 2003. That’s when I became a metro columnist at The Commercial Appeal, the first Black woman in such a role.
Installed in 1905, the statue was a middle finger to Black Memphis, a testament not just to white supremacy, but civic apathy and all the ways that institutions and politicians defer to racism rather than rooting it out.
But once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. The most direct way from my home to the paper’s office at 495 Union would have taken me past Forrest’s repulsive place of repose, so I took a back, more indirect route.
Seeing him as I started the work day upset my energy, which I needed to conserve to face the flood of vitriol from angry white readers.
A Black colleague warned me: Writing about Forrest was only going to make white people furious. She was right and I was stubborn. I was also naive, unaware of how deeply I would be hurt.
For years, editors had refused to block online commenters who made more vague threats of violence against me, and shrugged at the death threats.
Once, the then-editor, who is white, had his assistant, also white, go through my mail when I was on vacation. She found a death threat, which the editor instructed her to keep from me. Apparently unwilling to keep that secret, she told a Black colleague, who told me. The editor didn’t want me to report it to the police, but when I did, the police did nothing.
In another instance, in the elevator, the then-publisher, who is white, stepped across the usually impermeable wall between editorial and business and asked: Why was I so divisive?
The passage of time and intensive therapy keep me from remembering exactly how many death threats readers sent me at The CA. But at least two were in direct response to columns about Forrest.
The last threat landed in my inbox in March 2014.
“You are a nigger bitch,” the reader wrote. “One day I am going to grab you, rape you… and then throw you out in the street like the trash you are.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever been more scared.
It was the same terror that Forrest’s fans meant to spark in 1905 when they erected the statue.
The same fear as in 2009 when the Sons of the Confederate Veterans had the site added to the National Register of Historic Places and again in 2012 when the SCV plopped a granite “Forrest Park” marker in the park without city permission.
It was the same terror inflicted in 2013, when the KKK held a rally Downtown to protest changing the names of three Confederate parks, including Forrest Park, which became Health Sciences Park.
It was identical to the vile, hateful messages sent every time Forrest’s fans gathered in the park to celebrate white supremacy and to fondly remember the time when I would have been enslaved.
The threat made me feel exposed and vulnerable. I became hypervigilant. My picture accompanied my column, which meant that whoever meant to scare me knew what I looked like yet I had no idea who they were. If a car behind me made the same three turns as I did, I’d pull over and let them pass.
Not long after the rape threat, the then-editor, who is also white, reassigned me to a far less prominent job, one that was out of the public eye.
Here again was an institution willing to accommodate racism and violence against a Black person.
A few months later, the paper offered me a mid-six figure sum to sign a non-disparagement clause and resign. I left.
Fast forward three years, to the months before the city would mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the nonprofit newsroom I went on to create after leaving the paper, was only months old.
In June, activist Tami Sawyer, who would later become a Shelby County Commissioner, launched #TakeEmDown901, an ultimately successful campaign to rid the city of its Confederate monuments.
She and others led countless rallies at the statue’s base. At an August 2017 event, demonstrators faced off with Memphis Police officers, another institution willing to exact violence against those who would speak up against racism and white supremacy. Officers dragged protesters away, arresting eight.
After much maneuvering by local elected bodies and officials, Forrest and his horse were dethroned at 9:01 p.m., Dec. 20, 2017.
On Sunday, I walked around what had been Forrest Park. The fence and Memphis Police Department sky camera that had stood watch for years were gone. In the square where Forrest’s equestrian statue once stood was… nothing.
A patch of reddish brown mud and stones was surrounded by pavement, on which the words “Black Lives Matter” had been painted, along with a fist.
More than the words, the fist made me smile. It is a testament to the strength of resistance, the power of the people, defiance and resilience in the face of domestic terror.
But if you look closely, you can still find Forrest. On the park’s Madison Avenue side is a historical marker for Memphis City Hospital, which used to sit on this land until after “its razing in 1895, the location became Forrest Park.”
As I headed to my car, I passed one of the new accessible picnic tables that now dot the park. Only one side has a bench, leaving the other side free for someone using a wheelchair.
My writerly brain started to ruminate about how removal can lead to renewal. The statue’s overdue eviction preceded new amenities – such as the tables, benches and a little free library – that made the park more welcoming for all.
And then I saw it. On the side of one table was a sticker. I bent to read it, hopeful that maybe it echoed the Black Lives Matter message or spoke to rebirth.
The sticker was for a racist, white nationalist group that conducts public stunts engineered to evoke the same fear and terror the Confederacy and Klan did. (I am not naming the group as I refuse to give it the attention it craves.)
Immediately my chest was tight and my guard up, my fight-or-flight response activated. Trauma as a reflex.
A quick Internet search yielded this: The group was born the same year the monument came down.
Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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