As a student of history I have studied many lives from the American Civil War. The one that intrigued me most was the notorious Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a tremendous cavalry officer for the Confederacy; yet also had a reputation for racism on a massive scale. The marks against Forrest are that he was a slave-trader prior to the war and an early leader in the Ku Klux Klan afterward. The first statement is a fact, the second statement is debated. But there are other facts about Forrest that remain largely unknown today. Would you believe that by the end of his life, Forrest was maligned by many, including the Federal government, for being too benevolent toward the blacks of the South?
In my book Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption (Pelican Publishing, 2010), I recount some radical changes that took place in Forrest after the war, culminating in his conversion to Christianity in 1875. After the war ended in 1865, Forrest worked with many former Union soldiers and employed former slaves in his various business ventures. At one point he was investigated by the Federal government's “Freedman's Bureau” to make sure he was complying with the law regarding his black employees. The only complaint the Bureau had of Forrest was that he paid the former slaves higher wages than the government thought they should receive and that Forrest allowed the former slaves to own guns. Forrest, it seems, was far more respectful of the black man's rights than the Federal government was. The Bureau's chief investigator of Forrest referred to the former general as “too liberal” toward his black employees. (Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption, pg. 117) I wonder if any of the current vitriolic opponents of Forrest know that he was branded as a “liberal” for his kindness toward the black people of his day? Would this change their desire to dig up his body and tear down his statue? What about his public statements in defense of the southern blacks?
It's frightening how quickly the “group-think” mob takes over. In a few short weeks we went from, perhaps, removing a flag in South Carolina to digging up the graves of a man and his wife who have been dead for 140 years. Blacks (and liberal whites) want him gone for being a racist, yet history shows he was far, far more benevolent toward the blacks of his day then Abraham Lincoln was. Yet Lincoln is hailed while Forrest is reviled. Most don't even know the truth about Forrest and if they did, sadly, it wouldn't matter. Blind hatred will not listen to rational truth and proven historical facts. It's awfully hard to talk sense into someone after Al Sharpton has whipped them into a frenzy with a plethora of lies. In all honesty, rather than dig up Forrest and tear down his statue, the blacks of Memphis should be leading the charge to build a few more statues in his honor and clean up the park where his body resides. His ties to the Klan are very loose, with his main link to them being his public call for them to disband in 1868. He spoke publicly in support of the black former slaves and helped them find work in a Southern world largely destroyed by Northern aggression, ignorance, and greed. Forrest should be the black man's hero today. Instead they want him dead. But he's already dead. So they want to dig him up and kick him out of town. I'm sure once their ghoulish deed is done Memphis will immediately see its rampant crime rate plummet. Racial harmony will congeal. Butterflies will hold hands and play ring around the rosy, while rainbow colored unicorns skip through the streets.... Or maybe not. Here's more on Forrest and his “racist” past.
After being invited to speak at the Independent Order of Pole-bearers, a group of black former slaves devoted to racial reconciliation, Forrest gave a speech encouraging them and telling them he was with them “in heart and in hand” saying “if you are oppressed I will come to your defense.” Forrest publicly called for the KKK to disband and was ridiculed by many for his defense of blacks. One has to wonder if people today knew these historical truths that I cite with sources in my book, would they still hate him so? God's grace changed Forrest and that change was evidenced by actions. If God could forgive him, who are we to withhold forgiveness?
Forrest was ahead of his time regarding race relations. Rather than a villain, he should be held up as an example of what the black community should desire a “racist” to become. America needs to heal and the South has many problems. But Forrest isn't one of them. Let us commit to letting historical facts speak for themselves and show the same grace toward others (including Forrest) that we want shown toward ourselves. Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Put down your rocks America; and bend your knee to the God of all mercy. Forrest found grace. And so can you.