Nathan Bedford Forrest gets a bad rap

Date published: 9/9/2007

KENNESAW, Ga.–Is the history of our great nation important to you?

Union Gen. William T. Sherman said of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, “After all, I think Forrest as the most remarkable man our ‘Civil War’ produced on either side.” This came from a man who was once a foe of Forrest on the field of battle.

Why do some folks attack America’s heritage?

Several years ago, attempts were made to change the name of Forrest Park in Memphis, Tenn. Now, there are people trying to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla.

But was Forrest an early advocate for civil rights?

Forrest’s speech during a meeting of the “Jubilee of Pole Bearers” is a story that needs to be told. He was the first white man invited by this group, which was a forerunner of today’s civil rights groups. A reporter at the Memphis Avalanche newspaper was sent to cover the event, one that included a Southern barbecue supper.

Miss Lou Lewis, daughter of a Pole Bearer member, was introduced to Forrest, and she presented the former general a bouquet of flowers as a token of reconciliation, peace, and good will. On July 5, 1875, Nathan Bedford Forrest delivered this speech:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is anyone on God’s earth who loves the ladies, I believe it is myself. [Applause and laughter followed this line.]

“I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. [Applause.]

“I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are free men.

“Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.

“We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly, and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief.

“I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest again thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the society of those days, in 1875, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community, and did much to promote harmony among the citizens of Memphis.

Involve your family in study sessions to seek the truth about this nation’s history–and ask your local government officials not to change the name of streets and schools named for our American ancestors.
Calvin E. Johnson Jr. is the author of “When America Stood for God, Family, and Country.”

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