The Tennessee governor’s proclamation to mark Saturday as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day remembers a “recognized military figure in American history” and a “native Tennessean.”
Critics point to other identities they say the state should not celebrate year after year: Slave trader. Confederate general. First Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
As communities around the South debate whether to scrap memorials to Confederate figures, Tennessee’s annual day of recognition — mandated for decades by a state law — is drawing renewed, bipartisan backlash.
“This is WRONG,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted Friday, noting Forrest’s Confederate and KKK leadership roles. “Tennessee should not have an official day (tomorrow) honoring him. Change the law.”
Forrest Day has been a holiday in Tennessee since 1921, state legislative librarian Eddie Weeks told the Tennessean. Since 1969, Forrest has been honored with a day of observation. The state code enshrining Forrest Day says the governor must also proclaim commemorations including Robert E. Lee Day on Jan. 19 and Confederate Decoration Day on June 3.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) would not say Thursday whether he wants to change the law, according to the Tennessean. His office did not respond to a request from The Washington Post for comment.
“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that, and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” Lee said Thursday.
Lee has said he doesn’t support removing a similarly controversial bust of Forrest from the state Capitol. He says he does not want to “whitewash history,” echoing common arguments from conservatives who frame Confederate statues and monuments as important parts of the historical record. Others say the memorials glorify people with racist histories, inviting veneration rather than critical examination.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) wrote on Twitter Friday that “Gov. Lee should be bringing #Tennessee into the 21st century not backsliding into the 19th.”
Tennessee state Rep. Harold Love Jr. (D) said that 2019 marks 400 years since the first slave ships arrived in Jamestown, Va., making this latest memorial to Forrest particularly disheartening.
Love, who plans to help introduce a bill next year to change the law, pushed back on the idea that the governor had no choice in the proclamation.
“What’s the penalty if he didn’t sign it?” Love told The Post on Saturday. “I mean, he’s not going to jail.”
Forrest’s legacy has been hotly debated, said Courtney Carney, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University who is writing a book on the Confederate general’s image. His defenders sometimes minimize his most criticized roles, claiming, for example, that he was kind to his slaves. And Carney says Tennessee state law puts up hurdles to Forrest’s erasure, making it harder to remove a Memphis statue of the man — and to end Forrest Day.
Over the years, Forrest has gained a “mystique,” especially in Memphis, where he had ties, Carney said. The removal by the city of its more-than-a-century-old statue of Forrest in 2017 prompted backlash from politicians who wanted to keep the memorial. Last year, a Republican-dominated state House voted to punish the city for the statue removal with a funding cut, over protests from legislators denouncing Forrest’s legacy.
Love, who has pushed to remove the bust of Forrest from the state Capitol, said the monument to Forrest belongs — if anywhere — in a museum, with proper context about who the man was. To have the bust in the Capitol is “insulting,” he said, especially to members of the state legislature who, as he is, are descended from slaves.
Forrest is scrutinized not only for his leadership in the Confederacy and the KKK but also, in particular, for his role in an 1864 Civil War battle now known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. The clash left hundreds of Union soldiers dead.
A witness described gruesome injuries to Northern soldiers, many of whom were black.
“I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayoneted also,” Robert S. Critchell, a Union sailor, recounted.
Memorials to Forrest have been drawing protest for years, Carney said. With Forrest Day back in the news, critics are calling once again for change. For all the focus on the past, Carney thinks the war over how Forrest is remembered says more about the present day than the historical figure.
“There’s enough ambiguity in the record to allow people to insert their own narrative,” Carney said.
But the clear facts of Forrest’s involvement in the KKK have drawn condemnation from people across the political spectrum, even some who — like Cruz — say they are generally opposed to removing monuments to “imperfect men.” We should put these figures in context, he said in another tweet.
“And, we shouldn’t be issuing proclamations today honoring Klansmen,” he said.