(Note: In light of recent attempts to remove Confederate symbols from the public square some have also sought to tear down monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest. An effort is under way in Memphis to actually dig up the bodies of he and his wife and move them. The following is an Op-Ed piece that I submitted to newspapers in Memphis and across the South. Most of them chose not to run it, for obvious reasons. I encourage people to read my book Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption to get the whole story on this man).
The recent despicable act of Dylann Roof in South Carolina has caused a stinging pain, that has reverberated from Charleston, across the South, and indeed the entire country. While our nation has been largely divided about certain aspects of the tragedy, there is unanimous assent that Roof's act was wicked and justice should be served. I echo this sentiment whole-heartedly and pray for the brave families and friends, who are also victims, of this senseless tragedy.
Pain is not the only thing that has reverberated across the South as a result of this act. What to do about the pain is also being fiercely debated. Calls to lower the Confederate flag in South Carolina have led to a full scale protest of any and all vestige of Confederate history. Including the destruction of monuments, the removal of busts, and the relocation of bodies long since laid to rest. Such calls have certainly been the case for Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Confederate general and presumed early leader of the Ku Klux Klan is, not surprisingly, maligned by many who see him as an icon of a tainted age in American history. But I wonder how many know of Forrest's latter years? When the war was over and his fortune was gone. When he was no longer selling slaves, but rather trying to eek out a living for himself and his wife. The once hardened soldier became a born-again Christian; and the ferocity which had previously marked his personality was transformed into a mild-mannered, kindly, meekness as he called for the KKK to disband, and spoke out in favor of black civil rights.
For several years I researched the spiritual aspect of Forrest's life, eventually writing a book entitled, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption. While I admired his battlefield exploits, I had no intention of writing a “puff piece.” I had read in several places of a conversion to Christianity he experienced and, as a Christian myself, I was curious. What I found was that Forrest was married to a godly woman who prayed for his salvation; and in 1875 it seemed to happen. Forrest was a broken man who turned to Christ for redemption and found it. People don't always forgive, but the Lord does. And aren't we all the better for it? Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Forrest's transformation occurred when he was invited by the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers (an organization of black freedmen) to give a speech. Forrest encouraged them and promised to be with them in “heart and hand.” He told them to pursue careers, even politics, and use their new found freedom to make a solid life for themselves. Forrest, dare I say it, became the black man's friend and defender.
Rather than maligning him, I wonder if people should instead marvel at the grace of God in his life and point to Forrest as what they wish every racist would become. How much different would the Charleston story be if the shooter had experienced a Christian transformation? If his blind hatred had been turned to blessed love because of an encounter with God? I would encourage temperance as it pertains to the removal of statues and bodies. I would encourage a serious “cooling off” period to avoid rash decisions. And I would encourage an examination of the complete picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest, rather than just a snapshot of his earlier days. People can change and deep down we all know that we need a touch of grace. We also need to show grace, even to those whom we don't think deserve it. Jesus calls us to “love our enemies” and when we do this we sometimes find that our enemy isn't really our enemy at all. Forrest was once the black man's enemy, but God's grace changed him and his views. Maybe God's grace will change you and yours as well. Maybe our verbal swords can be beaten into plowshares and we can get to work changing our nation and our world for the better.