A cross-lighting ceremony that took place near Tupelo, Mississippi, in late March following a Ku Klux Klan rally in Memphis, Tennessee, that was organized to protest the renaming of three parks in the city built in honor of the Confederacy. It is a “cross lighting,” not “cross burning,” because these Klansmen “do not burn, but light the cross to signify that Christ is the light of the world.” Photo by Robert King.
n the middle of an unkempt park in Memphis, Tennessee, stands an oversize bronze statue of a Confederate lieutenant general astride his mount. Its subject, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is considered by some to be one of the most infamous and powerful racists in American history. The first official leader of the Ku Klux Klan, some historians allege that Lieutenant General Forrest’s most heinous act was ordering his troops to slaughter hundreds of surrendered soldiers at 1864’s Battle of Fort Pillow, more than half of whom were African American. Others celebrate him as the physical manifestation of the South’s ethos during the Civil War and beyond: a rebel hero who relentlessly campaigned for his cause until it became untenable; he never gave up, even after his death.
Unveiled in 1905, the Memphis News-Scimitar reported that the masterfully sculpted monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest (or NBF) would “stand for ages as the emblem of a standard of virtue.” And today it seems the newspaper’s prophecy was correct, except for perhaps the “virtue” part. As of 2013, “that devil Forrest,” as he was infamously nicknamed by Union General William T. Sherman, is still sprinting across a Tennessee ridge on his stallion, kicking up dust in a city with historically tense racial relations.
Pink granite tiles and modest bronze headstones that look like plaques skirt the sculpture. General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery, are buried underneath. NBF’s more celebrated moniker, at least in some circles, is the “Wizard of the Saddle,” a nickname he earned for his wondrous equestrian talents in battle, and one that calls to mind the highest modern-day rank of the KKK—the Imperial Wizard.
The latest controversy surrounding the park and statue came to a head in early February, when the Memphis City Council unanimously voted to change the name of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park (at least temporarily; a special commission is still in the process of deciding its final name as of press time), in line with the downtown medical-student facilities of the University of Tennessee that surround it. Two other Memphis parks—Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, named after the president of the Confederacy—were also renamed by the City Council, with the reasoning that they were publicly funded reminders of an era that could be considered offensive and unwelcoming to the majority of the city’s residents, 63 percent of whom are African American according to the 2010 census.
Shortly after the City Council’s decision, a man identifying himself as Exalted Cyclops Edward announced that his chapter of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was planning a massive rally to protest the renaming of the three parks. “It’s not going to be 20 or 30,” he told local NBC affiliate WMC-TV. “It’s going to be thousands of Klansmen from the whole United States coming to Memphis, Tennessee.” Later in the month the city granted the Loyal White Knights a permit for a public rally to be held March 30 on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Memphis, one day before Easter and five days before the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel.
It was an eerily familiar scenario for Memphians. On January 17, 1998, around 50 members of the KKK held a rally at the very same courthouse in what they claimed was an attempt to protect their “heritage” in the lead-up to MLK Day and that year’s 30th anniversary of his assassination. Outnumbered by counterprotesters, the Klan’s vitriolic screeds incited a small riot that resulted in looting and the ill-prepared police force teargassing the entire crowd.
One Memphian and self-proclaimed member of the Grape Street Crips seemed to take the Klan’s threats to return to his city very seriously. Following the announcement of the planned rally, 20-year-old DaJuan Horton posted a video on YouTube in which he states that he’s organizing a consortium of local gangs—some rivals—to unify and show their discontent on the day of the rally. Local and national media suddenly became very interested in the impending event, whipping a diverse cross-section of the city into a frenzy.
“They gonna come to Memphis, Tennessee… where Martin Luther King got gunned down,” DaJuan says in the video. “You’re going to come here and rally deep—really, really deep, in my language, just to talk? No, it’s not gonna happen like that. When you come to Memphis, Tennessee, we’re gonna rally right across from you, and it’s gonna be Young Mob, Crips, Bloods, GDs, Vice Lords, Goon Squad… I’m getting on the phone with them daily. I’m talking to the big guys, the big kahunas. I’m talking to the Bill Gates of the gang wars. You come to Memphis, we’re going to be waiting on you. It’s versatile down here. We got every gang you can think of; we’ve got the fucking Mob down here. Bring your ass on.”
Had the City Council’s decision to rename the park sparked a potential showdown with what many law enforcement agencies consider America’s oldest terrorist organization and a mega-alliance of the country’s most violent gangs? Or was the Klan struggling to retain relevancy in an era when race relations have progressed so much that the US has elected a black president twice over? I traveled to Memphis about a week before the rally to meet everyone involved and find out.