A few years before Nathan Bedford Forrest became the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and decades before a statue of him was dedicated in Memphis, the Confederate general overlooked Fort Pillow and planned how he would destroy the beacon for escaped slaves.
Numerous assaults eroded the garrison in April 1864. When the commander declared that he would not surrender, Forrest sent waves of rebels to finish off the dwindling Union troops — many of them black. “The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said afterward, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” The Mississippi River was blood red for 200 yards, Forrest later said.
In 1905, a statue of Forrest on horseback was dedicated in a Memphis park, 40 miles south of the site of the battle and later massacre.
On Tuesday, nearly 154 years to the day that his troops obliterated the fort, Forrest’s ghost — and his statue — haunted the Tennessee legislature.
The Republican-dominated House voted to remove $250,000 earmarked for the Memphis bicentennial next year after the city engineered a way to remove that statue in December, along with a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The amendment was adopted in a $37.5 million spending bill still working its way through state chambers for approval.
“This is one of the most vile, racist acts I’ve seen happen in the legislature,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D), who represents Memphis, told The Washington Post on Wednesday. Parkinson is part of the majority-black population of Memphis.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) blasted the amendment.
“From Scopes Monkey Trial, to 10 Commandments resolution of ’96, & now to punishment of Memphis for removing statues that honor leaders of the Confederacy, the TN House of Representatives sadly continues to embarrass Tennessee across the nation,” Cohen wrote Wednesday on Twitter.
Parkinson was joined by House Democrats and several Republicans in opposition to what they called a punitive measure after the December statue removals. The city skirted laws meant to block removals of memorials on public grounds by selling two parks containing the statues to a new nonprofit called Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each.
The group removed the statues later that night, part of a national wave of Confederate iconography excised from public spaces that drew considerable controversy and sometimes violence, such as in Charlottesville. That wave came amid a national debate on the role of Confederate history, with critics saying the memorials honor traitors and slave traders and proponents suggesting they honor history.
The Forrest statue was dedicated in 1905 during the Jim Crow era of discrimination and segregation, and critics of Confederate monuments have said that many were built as a tool of intimidation directed at blacks marshaling for civil rights. The NAACP was founded in 1909.
“Today is a demonstration that bad actions have bad consequences, and my only regret about this is it’s not in the tune of millions of dollars,” state Rep. Andy Holt (R) said Tuesday on the floor, comparing the statue removals to “what ISIS” does — an apparent reference to destruction of ancient sites like Palmyra in Syria by the Islamic State militant group. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
State Rep. Matthew Hill (R), the bill’s sponsor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Parkinson was booed on the floor as he gave his remarks. He told The Post that he was shocked by the defense of Forrest the same month that Memphis has recognized the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“They act like Nathan Bedford Forrest is their God,” he said, referring to proponents of the amendment in the House. “What I see is a vicious, violent individual who made his fortunes out of the human slave trade.”
About 69 percent of the whites at Fort Pillow survived, compared with 35 percent of black Unionists — pointing to a selective massacre of nearly 300 federal troops and slave runaways that became one of the defining and most shocking moments of the conflict.
Forrest became the grand wizard of the KKK after the Civil War.
“That ideology, that sentiment is embedded in their hearts. What’s in your heart will come out through your actions and through your words,” Parkinson said of the amendment proponents.
Other lawmakers did not shy away from the measure and its connection to the statue removal.
“The law was very clear, and they got smart lawyers to figure out how to wiggle around the law, and I think that’s what the issue is,” state Rep. Gerald McCormick (R) said. The city comptroller found in February that Memphis acted within bounds to sell the parks below market value but said it failed to have the nonprofit submit an application to city real estate officials before the properties were conveyed.
State Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D), who is black, on the House floor called the amendment un-Christian and mean-spirited.
“It is one thing to observe and learn from history,” she told The Post on Wednesday. “It’s another thing to celebrate a dark part of our history … it’s not something that really represents the people of this state.”