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VOL. 43 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 26, 2019

There’s a good home somewhere for Forrest bust

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A smallish group of folks passed by on Church Street the other day holding signs declaring their opposition to the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee Capitol.

It’s what passes for a Confederate monument controversy in Nashville, Forrest being infamous to many for both his Rebel command officer status and his association with the Ku Klux Klan.

I’m no Forrest fan. But I confess to certain ambivalence on the monument topic.

That is to say, I reject the notion of the “Lost Cause,” the myth long accepted as gospel in the South, which holds that our ancestors in gray were nobly fighting against federal government repression in a conflict that had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with states’ rights.

Hogwash.

Likewise, I reject any defense of the Rebel flag along the lines of “heritage not hate.” That symbol has been thoroughly discredited through its co-opting by white supremacist groups, and I’m embarrassed that the Mississippi state flag still displays it.

But I also consider most of the monuments relatively benign tributes to soldiers, most of whom I suspect fought – and often died – without giving much thought to the larger societal issues involved. And certainly, there are more pressing problems to address.

Confederate monument at the University of Mississippi.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Wikipedia

Like, say, what often appears to be the current collapse of our long-accepted governing norms.

That’s why I applaud monument solutions that go beyond the simple “tear it down” and try to address all the competing sensibilities.

Such as what I hope is going to happen with the Confederate monument on the campus of my alma mater, Ole Miss. It has stood at a main entrance to campus, on what is known as the Circle, since 1906. In recent years, it’s been a thorn in the side of an institution that has done much in its effort to atone for a shameful history of racial discrimination.

Most recently, in February, it drew a group of pro-Confederate demonstrators, not exactly the kind of folks to be welcomed at a university already burdened with a toxic racial past.

In 2016, an effort was made to “contextualize” the monument, by the addition of a plaque that includes this wording:

“Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers, it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people.”

That effort is thought by many not to be enough. Last month, both the student government and the faculty Senate voted unanimously to remove the monument.

The bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Ku Klux Klan leader, has been in the Tennessee Capitol since 1978.

But here’s where the resolutions go beyond the approach. Rather than destruction, they call for relocation of the monument, to a spot still on campus but more suitable: The Confederate cemetery.

Yes, there is a Confederate cemetery on the Ole Miss campus. During the Civil War, university buildings were used as a hospital for wounded troops, many of them from the nearby Battle of Shiloh. Those who died on campus were buried there – more than 700, it is thought.

The cemetery occupies a patch of ground that lies just south of the old basketball coliseum. A low, brick fence surrounds the property, which is identified by a sign at the entrance. The graves once had individual markers, but the story is they were removed more than a century ago to facilitate a mowing, and nobody thought to keep track of where they belonged.

Now, a lone obelisk sits in the center with a plaque containing the names of 130 or so of the dead within.

The rest are unknown.

All in all, it’s not an entirely forlorn site. But the obelisk, however well intended, doesn’t give the fallen their due. The Confederate monument – a relatively towering piece, topped with a statue of a soldier – would do just that.

And it will, if the College Board eventually approves the relocation.

It’s the proverbial win-win. And maybe there’s a similar solution to be found for Tennessee’s Forrest bust.

As it happens, Mississippi once had a similar situation. For years, a statue of the race-baiting former senator and governor Theodore G. Bilbo stood in the Capitol Rotunda, greeting all comers.

During a renovation 30 or so years ago, Bilbo was quietly relocated to a less prominent side room.

I bet that the Tennessee Capitol has such a room for Forrest.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.

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