Just outside of Nashville, standing beside Interstate 65, is this statue. Take a closer look:
Eeks. Makes you shudder not just because of the horrific design (like something out of a Disney nightmare) but because of its significance. The statue is of the Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
And the reason for the Pepto-Bismol paint job? Objectors long pressed the owner of the land to remove the statue, but their request was refused. So, they found another way to voice their displeasure.
Before the Civil War, Forrest became wealthy, in large part by slave trading. During the war, he rose to a general’s rank. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, he and his soldiers massacred Union troops that had already surrendered, many of them black soldiers. After the war, Forrest became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Given his history, it’s easy to see why people would want the statue removed. I’m one of those people. I drive past the statue two to three times a week, and every time, I long for a paint bucket or a chainsaw.
A few days ago, the subject of the statue and Forrest came up in conversation. “He was the grand wizard of the KKK,” I said. “How can the owner live with himself?”
Someone said, rather quietly, “He later renounced the KKK and was responsible for disbanding it.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
“It’s true,” he replied.
We dropped the conversation, but inwardly I was rattled. I’d never heard any talk of Forrest disbanding the horrible group. And I didn’t want to hear talk of it.
But when I got home, I researched it.
Turns out that Bedford Forrest did renounce his Klan membership and was responsible for disbanding the group. He also volunteered to the government to help hunt down all remaining members that committed violence to African-Americans.
I found several articles supporting these claims, including a Huffington Post piece.
According to reports, Forrest became an activist, of sorts, espousing reparations and equality among all people. Confederate groups accused him of being a race-traitor. They claimed he had dementia. But, according to many accounts, he maintained his assertion of equality. In 1875, he advocated for the admission of blacks into law schools.
I had not heard these things before, nor did I want to. My mind was made up. Evil man. Rip the statue down, or buy more paint.
But what if he truly had a change of heart? What if he inwardly changed and came to see racism as the poisonous evil that it is? Can I still judge him as harshly?
I still don’t know where I stand. These are hard questions, ones that leave me with heavy sighs, shaking my head in frustration. If a man has a change of heart, can the sins of his past be forgiven? Or is he forever marked by those deeds?
Don’t we, as Americans, love a redemption story? Or do some people fall outside the scope of redemption?
I’ll probably drive by the statue at least once more before returning to L.A. I’m not sure what my reaction will be then.