Students at MTSU (my alma mater) have resurrected the campaign to change the name of the ROTC building, currently named for Nathan Bedford Forrest—slave trader, Confederate war criminal, and first Grand Wizard of the KKK.
What follows is my effort to broadcast the campaign and provide reasons to endorse it.
Nathan Bedford Forrest: A racist sleazeball, even “for his times”
If the well-known facts about Forrest’s life aren’t enough to convince you he shouldn’t be memorialized, consider some less celebrated biographical gems:
(a) Forrest’s attitude toward what he did for a living was simply wicked. In one advertisement, he both boasted about separating black families and cruelly mocked female slaves’ vulnerability to being raped—bragging that he had captured the daughter of famous slave-turned-Northern-statesman Frederick Douglass, and she was “of the class known among dealers as a ‘likely girl’.”
(b) His final career was as a hyper-exploitative broker of (forced) black convict labor, on a pestilent island in conditions described as “worse than slavery.”
(c) His reputation as “the butcher of Fort Pillow” is well-deserved. First, nobody denies a massacre occurred, nor that Forrest was in charge. Before the attack, Forrest sent a note to the Union generals promising to massacre their forces if they didn’t surrender. And when they failed to surrender, they were indeed massacred; further details are fuzzy, but also unimportant. (In later years, when challenged about his crimes, his go-to response was to cruelly mock the slaughter, claiming that his men ate the black soldiers and he himself ate their murdered babies.)
(d) Finally, Forrest hacked a black field hand to death with an axe for the crime of refusing to drain a puddle quickly enough. This prompted the rest of his workers to mutiny, rat-holing Forrest in his own house by torch and pickaxe until the deputy could rescue him. (Forrest was tried for murder and acquitted only due to the corruption of a white judge.)
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To address some common defenses of NBF and his imagery:
(i) But he was very good at something
NBF was perhaps the greatest American(?) cavalryman ever. But surely this is not enough to rate statues and nameplates. Think about it: Outside of contemporary pop culture, celebrity is inevitably attended by ‘greatness’ of some sort or another. This applies no less to the infamous: Hitler’s oratory skill is only the most famous example. Even, say, notorious serial killers only become so for being more clearly fastidious, dedicated, and brave than average folk.
Point being, if “he possessed some very good qualities” is your sole argument for memorializing Forrest, this would allow memorializing virtually anyone well-known enough to be considered. So clearly, more must be said. Some consideration of “the whole person” must be made.
(ii) But he changed in his later years
Forrest’s alleged penitence in later life is overblown. He only renounced the Klan because, as his best friend recounted, “we knew it would not be needed again.” Namely, his exit followed a particularly violent campaign of voter intimidation in which NBF heartily participated, and which won the South for the Democrats that election year. (Similar tactics would keep them winning for the next twenty election cycles.) This was a period when intense federal and state heat was causing many prominent persons whom no one doubts were racist and remained so to leave and “renounce” the Klan. This egocentric pragmatism should hardly be confused with a change of heart.
NBF’s late wish for the “advancement of the negro” had economic and political components, but it isn’t clear it ever had a moral one. He felt that things like trades training for black folks was good for business—and not just generally, but for his business. His ‘turnabout’ on race relations emerged apace with his plan to populate the inferior lands along his railroad with free black townships—which of course required black tradespeople, etc.
He further flirted with a political alliance of conservative blacks and Southern whites; only the entire, stated point of this was to counter the only political force dedicated to the unqualified “advancement” of the former, the Radicals in the Republican Party. The appeal to blacks was always cast in a “devil you know” mood: i.e., “Don’t ask for too much or you’ll stir up trouble with those guys and lose what you already have.”
In the end, “advancement” from some low baseline is one thing; full equality with whites is quite another. And NBF was clear to make the distinction until the day he died.
(iii) Let history be (or something)
Some argue that we should take a “neutral” stance toward historical artifacts: History happened this way, and there is no use denying it just to make ourselves feel good.
For instance, from the Change Forrest Hall campaign Facebook page:
(First, I doubt the sincerity of those who make this argument—because they are inevitably the most vociferous defenders of NBF’s resume. That is, you can’t say history should stand “no matter what it was like” while at the same time saying “it should stand because it was like this.” But that’s a side point.)
Let’s be clear: The items in question aren’t historical artifacts. At least, not the way these people mean; they aren’t Civil War artifacts. The three contested representations of Forrest in Middle TN date to the late 1950s (Forrest Hall), the late 1970s (bust in the state Capitol) and late 1990s (the I-65 statue). Granted, these are artifacts about history, but so what? The blog post you’re reading is an artifact about history. Protest graffiti on a statue of a Civil War officer is an artifact about history. That status alone doesn’t render something untouchable.
In the end, these critics are confusing a representation with an honorarium. A Forrest nameplate doesn’t just give information about the past. It doesn’t just say “this happened.” It says, rather, “this happened, and it was good.” Of course, you’re free to say that Forrest’s legacy is a good one, all things considered. And we can talk about that. But drop the pretense to neutrality. This debate is necessarily about what we value—what we think is good. It has to be.
* * *
Conclusion: The real point here
All that said, I suggest that the technicalities of NBF’s biography are largely irrelevant to the question of whether to keep or remove his busts and nameplates. It is possible for someone’s image to function as a racist symbol whether or not he was always—or even ever—a nasty racist himself.
Ninety years after the Civil War’s end, the South saw an explosion of new Confederate iconography. Busts and statues of CSA heroes popped up all over. High schools adopted little rebel guy sports mascots. In 1961, the South Carolina legislature ‘suddenly’ elected to fly the Battle Flag over the statehouse.
The timing of this trend—plus the transcripts of the dedication ceremonies—show without a doubt that it functioned as a protest of the nascent black Civil Rights Movement, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools.
The choice to name MTSU’s military building after Nathan Bedford Forrest (1958) should be viewed in this context. As such the nameplate is “bigger” than Forrest himself and has a meaning independent of him. It was chosen to mock and dispirit black people struggling for human rights. In this sense, it functions as a racist symbol no matter the “real facts” of NBF’s life. There are other reasons, but this alone warrants the change.
[Come rally with us to get this done!]
[The one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death is upon us. Rereading Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, it occurs to me he essentially confesses to murder—and more than once.]
Many have detailed the absurdity of Wilson’s account of the Mike Brown shooting. The facts don’t jive with reality. Fewer have noted its inconsistency: The facts, absurd or no, don’t jive with each other. At some points, DW gives rationales to defend his behavior which are completely undermined by his words and behavior at later points. Perhaps worse, the DA never calls him on any of it.
Below are two of the more severe and seldom-emphasized examples.
Fatal inconsistency #1: Running vs. not running
The crux of DW’s defense is that he had to shoot Michael Brown to save his own life. Specifically, Brown was punching him in the face through the police car window and he thought the next blow might kill him. (He also testified that Brown began to reach for his gun; however, this was subsequent to his choice to draw and shoot.)
Let’s ignore the patent implausibility of the “death blow” theory. (And the lack of evidence—when a picture of Wilson’s “injuries” was shown to the jury, the prosecutor literally didn’t know what they were looking at). As the normally-inclined-to-accept-the-police-narrative Nancy Grace asked, Why didn’t he simply “put the pedal to the metal and drive”?
To be fair, Wilson describes a fast-paced, chaotic episode of tussling, his hands flurrying to simultaneously block and grab at his attacker and open the car door to exit. Placing the car into drive and zooming off may not have been a clear option at all moments in this process.
But after the first shot is fired, the entire game changes. According to DW, the bullet sent Brown backward away from the car window and momentarily paused the struggle. One juror reiterates Grace:
“Did you ever think about, I know you said your vehicle was running, did you ever think about just getting in that bad boy and drive?”
(n.b. He’s already in the car, so “getting in” is figurative there. She’s asking why he didn’t just put it in gear and depress the gas when he clearly had a chance.)
Interesting—because not three pages earlier, DW is asked why he chose to exit the vehicle in the first place before waiting for backup, which he estimated to be less than 30 seconds away. (Or rather, why he tried to exit, as according to his testimony Brown prevented this from happening).
“Running” in response to being “chase[d]” certainly sounds like “fleeing conflict”—the thing he says he is “trained not to [do]”—after all. And the way he describes this, using the present tense (“my comfort zone is…”) indicates this is not only an option, but one he considers as a matter of routine: It is Wilson’s habit to place himself outside of his car when dealing with dealing with tense situations, in case they escalate to a point where he “need[s] to run.”
In fairness, it does appear that by “run” DW means something less than a “full retreat,” never to return to the action. Outside his car, he can maneuver for position, beat a strategic retreat to create space, collect himself and then resume the arrest, possibly with backup.
Fine. But this can all be done—all the better—in a car. Indeed, Wilson is forced to agree that he is “more mobile in a car than…on foot.” At a minimum, he could use the car to get out of the car: If Brown was blocking the door, as he testified, then drive up several feet, exit, and double back.
Instead, Wilson chose to shoot Brown from inside the car—not once, but twice. Think about that. Even if you accept he couldn’t drive away before the first shot (which is false—he had to have both hands free to rack the slide), he clearly could afterward. By his own admission, his choices were: (1) Drive forward a bit and see what happens, or (2) kill someone. And he chose (albeit unsuccessfully, at first) the latter. This is, plainly and simply, attempted murder.
Fatal inconsistency #2: Checking vs. not checking UOFC
To justify his choice to shoot Brown, Wilson appeals to the policing technique “triangle of force,” more commonly known as the “use of force continuum.” This is a scale police use to rank methods of controlling a suspect from non-lethal to most lethal. It is designed to help officers comply with the legal obligation to apply only as much force as is needed to neutralize a given threat. Put simply, you can’t escalate to more dangerous techniques until all feasible safer ones have been tried.
According to Wilson’s testimony, verbal commands and ‘empty hand control’ fail to rebuff Brown’s blows, and he left his taser at the station because—seriously—he’s too lazy to carry it. So he mentally cycles through the “triangle” of remaining options, the escalating list of possible defenses he can use.
He considers and rejects the following in turn:
- mace: runs the risk of blowback in the confined space of the car, incapacitating himself;
- ASP (telescoping baton): located on back of belt, hard to access from a sitting position; narrow space of the car would prevent expansion, and if expanded, can’t get a good swing;
- flashlight: can’t get a good swing;
In addition, Wilson testifies, retrieving each of these items would require “sacrificing” his left hand, which he “wasn’t willing to do” as it was engaged in blocking Brown’s blows.
* * *
To summarize Wilson’s position: Each less-than-lethal option is rejected due to his operating within the “close and confined” space of the police car; a space he is confined to, in turn, because Brown was preventing his exit; this rejection left him no choice but the gun.
Put crudely, the line of causality goes:
Brown’s attack –> confined to the car –> had to shoot
The chief problem with this justification is that Wilson goes on to successfully exit the car and to shoot Brown from that position as well.
After the shot from the car wounds Brown, he retreats and is followed on foot by DW, who shoots again when Brown (allegedly) spins around and “charges” him.
By his own testimony, upon exiting and gaining space from Brown, Wilson needs to check the “triangle” again for the least forceful but effective option available. But he never does—he simply imports the check from the car. Indeed, the first (and only) thing he tells his sergeant responding to the scene is “he tried to grab my gun, I had to shoot him”—ignoring the fact that the fatal shot(s) came after the “grabbing,” with Brown nowhere near the weapon. This is like saying I had to hit my dog on the nose today because he had a smaller dog in his jaws last Tuesday.
Outside of the vehicle, every reason Wilson chose “deadly force” in the prior case no longer applies. He is free to—and indeed, must—consider the full range of forceful options from hand control to mace to baton. (Or indeed, a tactical retreat by foot—the entire reason he said he wanted to exit the car in the first place.) But Wilson just shoots—again.
He never explains this “leap” across the force continuum, which ended in the death of Michael Brown; nor is he asked by the DA to explain it. Again, the word for this is murder.
 Indeed, even in Wilson’s narrative, it sounds like Brown “reached for” the drawn gun to save his own life; rather than attempting to grab it, he pushed it away from himself, driving it down into Wilson’s hip.
 “Charges” if (and only if) you believe the one witness (#10) who concurs with Wilson’s account, and who happens to be the most inconsistent.