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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Nathan Bedford Forrest Special Observance Day in Tennessee

Today is July 13th.  Under Tenn. Code Ann. 15-2-101, "Each year it is the duty of the governor . . . to proclaim . . . July 13 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day" . . . . The governor shall invite the people of this state to observe the day[ ] in schools, churches, and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of such date[ ]."  

For now, I think I will "observe the day[] . . .with" what I consider to be an "appropriate ceremon[y] expressi[ng]" my "sentiment befitting the anniversary of such date[]."  

I will observe a moment of silence and remember that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not "just" someone who enslaved other people.  He actively bought and sold them.  He was a slave trader - perhaps the worst kind of slaver. He profited on the separation of mothers from children, and husbands from wives - and from their uncompensated and ill-gotten labors. Just three years before the Confederate States of America began their rebellion he was advertising in Nashville newspapers looking to buy 500 people - who he would then sell at a profit.

During the Civil War, he was a notorious officer of the rebelling Army of the Confederate States of America. While often heralded for his military tactics, locally he viciously conscripted men and boys into his ranks.

In April 1864, in what has been called "one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history." Confederate troops under Forrest's command massacred US Army soldiers who had surrendered, most of them African American soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, at the Battle of Fort Pillow. The report of a US Naval commander who arrived on the scene shortly after described it this way:
All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness ...Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.
As near as I can learn, there were about 500 men in the fort when it was stormed. I received about 100 men, including the wounded and those I took on board before the flag of truce was sent in. The rebels, I learned, had few prisoners; so that at least 300 of our troops must have been killed in this affair.
Finally, following the War, Forrest was named the first Grand Wizard of the KKK - elected to that position in 1867 as racial terror and lynchings reigned across the state and the south.
July 1868 Military Commission re KKK in Tennessee
 Excerpt from
Report of evidence taken before the Military committee in relation to
outrages committed by the Ku Klux klan in middle and west Tennessee.
By: Tennessee. General Assembly. Senate. Committee on Military Affairs.  Published: (1868)

History of Observance of Forrest's Birthday.  It is important with the outcry around this year's proclamation to remember that this year's "day of observance" is nothing new.  For about a century, the state has commemorated the birth of Forrest. In fact, the work to rehabilitate Forrest's image began in earnest as the second-version of the KKK was on the rise.

Veterans of Troop A, Forrest's Cavalry from Nashville in Washington, DC at a Confederate Veterans' Reunion, 1917
Library of Congress
Beginning in 1921 (which was also, for context, the year of the racial attack in Tulsa on the black Greenwood business district) the Tennessee government began to honor Forrest's birthday with a state-wide holiday. 

In 1923, the KKK burned a large cross in Nashville as part of a recruitment effort. 

And in 1924 they marched in downtown Franklin.

For some context, in 1925, 15 year old Sam Smith was lynched on Nolensville Road near the Davidson-Williamson County line by a mob of masked men who took him from a hospital bed and shot and hung his body from a tree.

The state commemoration of the Klan's first Grand Wizard's birthday continued. . . .

In 1927, the state of Tennessee erected a monument to Forrest at his birthplace in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. And throughout the 1930s, the celebrations of his birthday continued. . . 


The holiday continued into the 1940s. . . 


Note the banks are starting to forego observing the holiday.
 and 1950s . . .


Following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, in 1957 as Nashville moved to desegregate its schools, protestors held up signs referencing the KKK while school children walked to their first day of school.

In 1961, some resistance began to form to the holiday - but not due to its honoree - rather for the inconvenience it caused.

In 1963, the Nathan Bedford Forrest park was created near the site of the Battle of Johnsonville - a battle famous among many historians because of its significance to the US Colored Troops (African American regiments) during the Civil War.
The_Daily_News_Journal_(Murfreesboro) Wed__Mar_13__1963
And the state holiday commemorating his birthday continued . . . 
In 1969, the state consolidated the state holidays making Nathan Bedford Forrest day, a day of "special observance." 

However, Forrest was not forgotten. In 1973, the Sons of Confederate Veterans unveiled a portrait of Forrest to be hung in the Capitol and five years later - in 1978 - amidst protests - a bust to Forrest was placed in the Capitol. The following year, in February 1979, protestors convened again at the capitol to protest the Forrest bust and it was damaged. Two days later, a cross was burned at the Nashville NAACP headquarters.

In 1980, the KKK held a press conference in front of the Forrest bust as they announced that they were training SWAT teams for a race war.


By 1992, voices began to be raised protesting the continued hero worship of Forrest. The Tennessean ran competing opinion pieces on his birthday that year.


Efforts to End Day of Observance in Forrest's Honor. In 2015, calls to remove the bust from the capitol resumed. Additionally, there were legislative efforts to remove Forrest Day from the list of "special observances" honored by the state. 

This year, 2019, when Governor Lee signed the proclamation for his first time since taking office, there was significant outcry over the proclamation.

This opposition made for strange bedfellows as it drew condemnation from the right and left.
Tweet from Ted Cruz, Republican US Senator from Texas

Tweet from the Tennessee Holler
a progressive online news outlet in Tennessee
I fully support those who would change the state law and end the commemoration of Forrest's birthday. However, it is important to remember that this year's proclamation did not happen in a vacuum - it came about as a long history of the state's formal and public honoring of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and by proxy, his deeds.

UPDATE:  Two days later, Governor Lee announced in a series of tweets his plans to work to change the state law regarding the required proclamation.
This afternoon, I sat down for an interview to clear the air on something that everyone’s been talking about – the Nathan Bedford Forrest Proclamation. While it is my job as governor to enforce the law, I want Tennesseans to know where my heart is on this issue. Our state’s history is rich, complex and in some cases painful. With this in mind, I will be working to change this law. 
He then linked to an interview that he gave in which he said, 
“I want to share my heart about this,” the governor said. “I didn’t like it, and I want to explain why I didn’t like it and why I didn’t want to sign it. There are parts of our history that are painful particularly to African Americans. . . .Nathan Bedford Forrest and his parts of life is part of painful history and why I, we need to look at changing law and I will work with legislators to do that."
Regarding calls to remove the bust of Forrest at the capitol he said, "We need to have a broader conversation about that as well."