Bust of Civil War General Stirs Anger in Alabama
By ROBBIE BROWN
Published: August 24, 2012
In Selma, Ala., a battle over what to do with a bronze bust of a contradictory and controversial Civil War general has lasted far longer than the war itself.
Since the monument honoring Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was unveiled in a city park in 2000, critics have called it a symbol of hate. Vandals littered it with trash, pelted it with cinder blocks and tried to pull it down with ropes before it was moved to a private cemetery. Finally in March, the bust vanished. A historical society called Friends of Forrest has offered a $20,000 reward for its return, and vowed to replace it with a new bust on a taller pedestal, guarded by an iron fence and a surveillance camera.
The fight continued this week as about 20 protesters tried to block construction of the new monument by lying in the path of a concrete truck as crews tried to pour a ramp. Late on Thursday night, the Selma mayor, George Patrick Evans, decided to halt the work until the city attorney could review the plans. Meanwhile, an online petition at Change.org asking the City Council to ban the monument has more than 69,000 signatures.
The dispute has revived thorny questions about race, history and identity, familiar territory in a city known for a landmark civil rights clash between marchers and the police in 1965.
The general is a contentious figure, even among historians. Monuments and statues honoring General Forrest are in dozens of cities; high schools in Tennessee and Florida are named for him; and even Forrest Gump, the fictional character in the novel and movie by the same name, claimed that his mother had named him for the general. But although General Forrest is recognized as a brilliant cavalry officer, he was accused of war crimes for allowing his forces to massacre black Union troops who had surrendered after the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864. Following the war, he joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and became its first grand wizard.
“Some people think he was one of the most successful military practitioners of the war, and say that trumps all else he did later in life,” said Brian Steel Wills, the director of the Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and a history professor there. “Others condemn him out of hand as evil incarnate and dismiss him. Of course, he’s far more complex than either extreme.”
“Glorifying Nathan B. Forrest here is like glorifying a Nazi in Germany,” said Rose Sanders, a lawyer and local radio host. “For Selma, of all places, to have a big monument to a Klansman is totally unacceptable.”
Since the bust disappeared on March 12, the Friends of Forrest society has criticized Ms. Sanders for saying on the air that she wished the statue did not exist. She in turn has accused the society of hiding the statue, to attract sympathy. The society began to move ahead with a new monument, and plans approved by the Selma Historic Development Commission call for it to be 12 feet high, illuminated by L.E.D. lights, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and protected by 24-hour security cameras.
“We take the position that, in this country, we’re allowed to venerate our heroes,” said Todd Kiscaden, a Friends of Forrest member overseeing the construction. “There’s a monument to Martin Luther King in town. We don’t deface that monument. We don’t harass people. So let us enjoy the same treatment.”
The police were called to the construction site at least twice this week, once when protesters lay in the path of the truck, and again when Ms. Sanders said Mr. Kiscaden pushed her off the site while she was taking pictures. He said he was keeping her out of the way of construction equipment; she said she planned to press charges of assault.
Mayor Evans said it was unclear whether Friends of Forrest had permission to build on the cemetery site. The group does not hold the deed to the property, but it says that descendants of Confederate soldiers were granted ownership in the late 19th century and have cared for it since.
Malika Sanders-Fortier, Ms. Sanders’s daughter, who started the online petition, wondered why the group would choose to honor the general. “Here we are on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,” she said, “and we’re still having the same fights.”