“This is a terrifying thing,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue that towers over Interstate 65 in Nashville. “It’s 25 feet tall. It’s a bunch of different colors. Look at the eyes! Terrifying blue marble eyes. And look at the teeth! This thing has a mouth like a circular saw.”
It is a 25-foot-tall homage to a slave-trading Confederate Army and Ku Klux Klan leader, and it features Forrest atop a golden steed that looks like it was ripped from a merry-go-round for giants.
Regardless of where you stand on Confederate issues, the statue is a sight to behold.
It was erected in 1998 on a 3.5-acre parcel of private land beside the interstate; since then, the monument, which is surrounded by Confederate battle flags, has been a source of controversy, according to the Tennessean. Nine years ago, one local blogger called it “perhaps the biggest eyesore in Nashville.”
Born in Middle Tennessee, Forrest was a lieutenant general for the Confederate Army during the Civil War and served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He is, the Tennessean reported, also memorialized at the state Capitol building with a bust.
The Nashville statue has attracted new attention and scrutiny since the shooting deaths of nine parishioners in a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., last week. Police have identified the shooter as Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man with racist worldviews.
City Councilwoman Megan Barry, a Democrat, told the Tennessean that the statue “is an offensive display of hatred that should not be a symbol for a progressive and welcoming city such as Nashville.”
There is also the matter of the aesthetics. Gawker’s Sam Biddle wrote this week that it “is the dumbest looking statue I’ve ever seen in my life, including statues of cartoon characters located inside cartoon shows.”
In 2006, local blogger Brent K. Moore noted that the Forrest statue “has an expression that one makes after sitting on a thumb tack.”
As it turns out, the real-life Forrest didn’t have eyes that glowed like a flesh-eating zombie on bath salts. Nor was he completely covered in foil and unable to close his mouth.
He was intimidating, perhaps, but he had real human skin and deep-set eyes that stewed with intensity.
Adding to the oddity is the fact that the statue was designed by the late sculptor and attorney Jack Kershaw, who represented James Earl Ray, the man convicted of murdering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
At the statue’s unveiling, in 1998, “more than 400 sons and daughters of the South remembered the Dixie of their ancestors and their favorite Tennessee War Hero,” according to the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. “Hundreds of Confederate battle flags waved and voices sang ‘Dixie’ as the statue was unveiled.”
“He’s crying, ‘Follow me!'” Kershaw is quoted as saying.
The New York Times noted the significance of the statue to Kershaw in his 2010 obituary:
The monument, offensive to many, drew criticism, but Mr. Kershaw did not shy from offending. “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery,” he once told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
Bill Dorris, a Nashville businessman who owns the property on which the statue sits, told the Tennessean that removing the monument will cost the city — especially its black residents — economically.
“The No. 1 thing that disturbs me about the whole situation is, what about the 70,000 people that come here to study Civil War history every year?” he told the paper. “You’re taking away one of the reasons they’re coming to Nashville. They do support the restaurant industry, the lodging industry — and how many blacks work in those industries, work [as] tour guides and what have you?”
Dorris — who called slavery a form of “social security” for African Americans, “a cradle-to-the-grave proposition” — told WPLN that he’s not racist. He noted that he’s as disgusted by the shooting in South Carolina as anyone else.
“They don’t need a trial down there,” he told the station, referring to accused shooter Roof. “This is one time it’d be a good time to just hang the bastard and be done with it.”
If critics are going to use Roof’s actions to target his statue, he told WPLN that the public should address all the U.S. presidents who owned slaves.
“Let’s take the Washington Monument down, or at least let’s paint it black,” Dorris said. “Let’s burn Mount Vernon down. Let’s come over here to the Hermitage and burn the Hermitage down. When you get through with it, you ain’t changed nothing. You haven’t cleansed anything.”
Dorris has said the quality of Kershaw’s sculpting work is not great. But the statue should remain in view, he said, because of what it stands for.
“As an artist, mediocre,” Dorris said to WPLN about Kershaw. “As a thinker, he was way ahead of his time.”
As for Dorris himself, he once told WPLN: “I’ve been accused of being racist. Now if I was racist, why have I got so many blacks working for me?”