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TN GOP Rep: First KKK Grand Wizard Was 'One Of The South’s First Civil Rights Leaders'

Tennessee State Rep. Andy Holt (R) treated everyone to a little revisionist history while complaining about moving the remains of former Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
TN GOP Rep: First KKK Grand Wizard Was 'One Of The South’s First Civil Rights Leaders'
Image from: AP Photo / Erik Schelzig

This is just head spinning. Pay no attention to actual history folks. What's up is down and vice versa: GOP Lawmaker: KKK Grand Wizard Was 'One Of The South’s First Civil Rights Leaders':

Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was "one of the South's first civil rights leaders," a GOP state representative from Tennessee wrote in an op-ed published Thursday.

Tennessee State Rep. Andy Holt (R) said lawmakers were trying to "stoke the fires of racial tension in America" with claims against Forrest and by removing his remains from a Memphis park, according to his op-ed in The Jackson Sun, a newspaper in Jackson, Tenn.

Never mind that Forrest was a former slave trader, an extremely brutal general during the war, or his involvement with the Klan, he made up for all of that later because he said black people should have jobs.

The very idea of treating someone differently and not awarding them the same opportunities because of the color of their skin is absolutely disgusting. Were he alive today, Gen. Forrest would agree. In fact, Forrest was one of the South’s first civil rights leaders — a fact lost on many politicians looking to capitalize off the South Carolina tragedy.

Through Christ, we are called to believe in and celebrate redemption. When we recognize the life of Gen. Forrest, we are doing just that — celebrating the life of a man, redeemed through Christ, that fought for the rights of black West Tennesseans.

After the war, Gen. Forrest spoke with federal authorities controlling Memphis and the Memphis Board of Aldermen to plead with them to train young blacks so they would not be dependent on government. He argued that blacks were just as capable as whites to be doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc. The same Memphis city leaders wanting to exhume his grave today, ignored his calls for allowing blacks equal opportunities then. However, that didn’t stop Gen. Forrest from living his own life as an example. Forrest was CEO of Selma, Marion & Memphis Railroad. As CEO, Gen. Forrest hired and trained hundreds of former slaves. He even granted them leadership positions within the company.


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Holt also did his best to downplay Forrest's role in the Klan.

Those that wish to stoke the fires of racial tension in America claim that Gen. Forrest was the founder of the “KKK.” This is not true. The Ku Klos of the mid-1860s was founded by Judge Thomas Jones, Frank McCord and several other Confederate veterans. Two years after its founding, Forrest was elected grand wizard of the organization. However, he never dressed in costume. Additionally, no evidence exists showing that Gen. Forrest participated in any Klan activity at all. In fact, only two years after being elected grand wizard, Forrest ordered that all costumes and symbols be destroyed, and that the Klan be dismantled because it had become a racist organization. In fact, recognizing his will to exercise “moral authority,” the United States Congress recognized Forrest’s efforts to dismantle the Klan in 1871.

I'm pretty sure acting as the first Grand Wizard would qualify as "participating in Klan activity." Just because he wasn't one of the ones out there with the hoods on killing black people doesn't mean he's not responsible for the actions taken by others under his watch.

Holt went onto claim that because Forrest later gave a speech that the African American community approved and applauded, that somehow makes him a "civil rights leader."

In 1875, the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early civil rights organization in Memphis, invited Gen. Forrest to speak at their Fourth of July Barbecue. Ignoring the advice of many white friends urging him not to attend, Gen. Forrest accepted the invitation with an open heart. “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,” declared Gen. Forrest. After a speech that championed equality, unity and love, a large crowd of blacks roared with applause; a young black girl presented Gen. Forrest with a bouquet of flowers, for which he thanked her with kiss on the cheek.

Those interested in actually mending racial tension in Tennessee, rather than pandering for quick political points, should be singing the praises of Gen. Forrest. We should be teaching the story of Nathan B. Forrest to every last school child, not digging up his grave in an attempt to rewrite history. To do so does absolutely nothing to improve race relations. In fact, to exhume the grave of a civil rights leader should be viewed by those seeking to improve race relations as a hostile action. By the will of his own conscious, not the force of government, Nathan Bedford Forrest exemplified redemption, love, compassion and reconciliation.

This is why we celebrate the life of Nathan B. Forrest. As long as I am in office, because my conscious and faith compel me to fight for unity, I will continue to honor the life of General Forrest.

We should be teaching our history, just not revisionist forms like the one being passed off by this Tennessee Rep.

Here's a different take on the life of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the KKK from PBS from an author who does not have the same motives as the Tenn. Rep. does to whitewash our country's brutal history:

The reputation of General Forrest, under whom Ellen's great-grandfather served during the latter half of the war, has come to be defined by two infamous, yet brief, chapters in his life: his controversial assault on the Union-held Fort Pillow in 1864; and his post-war involvement with the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.

So closely is Forrest's name associated with the Klan, in fact, that he is sometimes incorrectly referred to as its founder. If not for these two black marks on his reputation, the ribbons and regalia appraised by Christopher Mitchell at around $10,000 would undoubtedly be quite a bit more valuable. Though totally uneducated, Forrest was a demonically gifted military commander and tactician, a legend in his own time. He was the only man on either side to rise from the rank of private to that of general during the four-year conflict. Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman called him the most remarkable man, and finest soldier, produced by the war.

Forrest and his 10 siblings grew up well beyond the edge of the civilized world, in a two-room cabin in the middle of Tennessee. His father was a blacksmith and subsistence farmer, his mother a virtual giantess at six feet. Forrest survived the typhoid that killed half his siblings, including his twin, and at 21 left home to become a planter and slave trader in Memphis. He soon became one of the wealthiest men in the South. In 1861, when he was 40 years old, Tennessee seceded from the Union. The survival of the South, and of Forrest's livelihood, were suddenly thrown into doubt, and Forrest joined the Confederate Army.

His violent temper was perfected in the theater of war: he immediately distinguished himself as a natural military genius. Sherman confessed to being perpetually flummoxed by Forrest's feral cunning and exhausted by his energy. In his first engagement, in Kentucky, Forrest defeated a Union force twice the size of his own.

In subsequent battles, he took on and defeated, time and again, larger, better-equipped, and more thoroughly trained forces, often by dint of subterfuge and deceit — more than once he tricked Union commanders into surrendering to his smaller force — but just as often by ferocity and shrewdness. He fought alongside his troops, and by the end of the war had personally killed 30 enemy soldiers. His own horses fared only a little better. He had 29 shot from underneath him, sometimes one within minutes of its ill-fated successor. He was wounded four times, two bullets coming to rest near his spine.

In the spring of 1864, low on provisions, Forrest attacked and captured Fort Pillow, a garrison north of Memphis. The incident became perhaps the most controversial military action in the Civil War, as Forrest had at his command more than twice as many soldiers as were occupying the fort, about half of whom were recently freed slaves. Surrounded and outnumbered, the Union forces declined to surrender, and, typically, Forrest was ruthless. His men overran Fort Pillow, taking few prisoners.

The Union called the battle a massacre. Forrest would later appear before Congress to defend himself against charges of war crimes, and though he was found not guilty, he was known to many, for the rest of his life, as the Butcher of Fort Pillow.

Post-War Years in Tennessee

After the war, Forrest returned to a devastated Tennessee and publicly advocated for peaceful submission to the victorious Union. But he was not the beneficiary of a sudden racial enlightenment, nor did he submit entirely to the new world order, one characterized by the societal tumult of Reconstruction and the removal of the Southern economy's cornerstone. Perhaps blacks were no longer slaves, but, Forrest believed, they had to remain the South's docile workforce, for their own good as well as his. "I am not an enemy of the negro," Forrest said. "We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have."

Meanwhile, in Pulaski, Tennessee, six Confederate veterans had formed, as a lark, a secret society that they whimsically dubbed the Ku Klux Klan (from the Greek word for circle, kuklos — they evidently liked the mystical ring of the alliterated k's.) At first, the six men and their recruits undertook non-violent, theatrical stunts to frighten back into line the freed slaves just beginning to assert their new rights.

But soon enough, more men joined the KKK and, as Republican efforts to rehabilitate Southern society grew more concerted, the KKK became a violent, marauding organization whose individual "dens" answered to no centralized authority. Society was changing quickly, and the KKK was trying to slow the pace. Bodies of freedmen, their white supporters, and Republicans began to litter the roadside.

It was at about this time that Forrest, learning of the KKK, expressed a desire to join. The eminent recruit was elected grand wizard, the Klan's highest official, and tried to bring the rapidly multiplying dens under a centralized authority — his own. Forrest probably did not object to the violence, per se, as a means of restoring the pre-war hierarchy, but as a military man, he deplored the lack of discipline and structure that defined the growing KKK. In its methods and aims, the KKK was merely the avenging ghost of the Confederate army. To Forrest's dismay, though, it was not an army that he could command.

After only a year as Grand Wizard, in January 1869, faced with an ungovernable membership employing methods that seemed increasingly counterproductive, Forrest issued KKK General Order Number One: "It is therefore ordered and decreed, that the masks and costumes of this Order be entirely abolished and destroyed."

By the end of his life, Forrest's racial attitudes would evolve — in 1875, he advocated for the admission of blacks into law school — and he lived to fully renounce his involvement with the all-but-vanished Klan. A new, different, and much worse Klan would emerge, 35 years after Forrest's death, in the wake of D.W. Griffith's revolutionary 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, a reactionary screed with a racialist brief that had been expanded to include Catholics and immigrants of all kinds. The second Klan was never restricted to the South; its goals had nothing to do with Forrest's vision of a restored Dixie.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a product of a divided society in which acts of racism were often considered good Christian behavior. He always suffered from a wild temper, bullied his subordinates and even his commanding officers, and was extremely violent. He grew up impoverished to a degree that few of us can imagine, and by ruthlessness and hard work rose to become one of the four or five most important actors in the American Civil War. Contemporary critics complained that he was ungallant, uncouth, and uneducated, not a grand Southern gentleman such as Robert E. Lee. Forrest himself would not have argued the point. But as a military mind and as a cultural artifact, Forrest is indispensable to a full understanding of the period.

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