The Wizard of the Saddle Rides Again

Is a Park in Memphis, Tennessee, the Epitome of Racism in Modern America? The KKK Say It’s Just History, Many Others Disagree

By Rocco Castoro

This bronze statue of Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest has stood for more than 100 years in a Memphis park that, until February 2013, was named after him. Photo by Robert King.

M y first order of business in Memphis, a wonderfully diverse and eclectic city that has been hit hard by economic woes in recent years, was to interview the protagonists of the situation at hand. Long-serving council members Myron Lowery and Janis Fullilove spearheaded—or were at least the most outspoken about—the decision to change the names of the parks. 

“Change produces controversy, and that’s what we have in this case,” Myron, a middle-aged black man who has the bluntly authoritative look and demeanor unique to experienced local politicians, told me. “Many people don’t want to change, they want to live in the past with the memories that they had. And whenever there comes along an idea to offer to compromise, they object to it because they say, ‘This is history, and you can’t change history.’”

What, I wondered, were Myron’s thoughts on NBF, a man who has been dead for over 130 years but still haunts Tennessee’s largest city from beyond the grave?

“Nathan Bedford Forrest was a racist,” he said. “He was head of the Klan—‘Oh, no, it isn’t the same Klan today as it was yesterday’—it was still the Klan… I’ve referred to the Klan as a terrorist organization. In fact, I call them the ‘American Taliban’ because of who they are and what they do.” 

No stranger to controversy, Myron’s counterpart Janis has been arrested on alcohol-related charges four times in the past five years (all the while serving on the council), and told me she was once shot at by a police officer while marching with MLK (the bullet left a hole through her wig). On the day we met she wore a fiery red suit and short, bleached blond hair. Forrest Park in particular, she said, had been a source of contention since 1904, when the remains of NBF and his wife were reinterred at the base of the statue after they were exhumed from nearby Elmhurst Cemetery. She was present at the rally in 1998, where she was “trampled and teargassed,” and told me that this time around she had received multiple death threats from anonymous parties who disapprove of the council’s decision to rename the parks. I asked her if she was prepared to accept responsibility for any resulting fallout. 

“I do, yeah, I take the blame,” Janis said, “even though I’ve got death threats—they gonna hang me, ‘Nigga, we gonna get you.’ Fine. I don’t know if it was the Klan, [but it was] somebody… OK, so what. Hang me.” 

My next question addressed accusations from the Klan and other Confederate-history enthusiasts: Was the Memphis City Council—made up of six whites and seven blacks—trying to erase the city’s controversial past? 

“The bottom line, at the end of the day, the names of those parks are not going back to what they once were. It’s going to change… So if Nathan Bedford Forrest is their hero, fine. Take his statue, put it in your backyard, your front yard, put it wherever you want to put it.” 

Earlier in the day I had met with Lee Millar, spokesperson for the Memphis chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans  (SCV) who wears a gray beard that wouldn’t be out of place in the late 19th century. Last year, Lee and his fellow SCV members raised the funds to install a massive stone engraved with the words forrest park at its perimeter, facing the street. He showed me a few emails from the parks department that seemed to approve its placement. But a few weeks back, a city maintenance crew had removed the stone in the middle of the night and relocated it to a municipal storage garage close to the city zoo. This happened without warning, Lee said, and virtually in tandem with the announcement that the parks’ names would be changed. Lee also said he considered the entire ordeal to be underhanded and detrimental to Memphis’s history. 

DaJuan Horton (center, in the black tank top), a member of the local Grape Street Crips, recruits friends in east Memphis to participate in a counterprotest of a planned KKK rally on Easter weekend. Photo by Robert King.

“It’s just idiotic,” he said. “Look at the Jews over in Germany, they keep parts of the prisons there as a reminder. This is all history for Memphis and America, and history should not be erased. You should add to it and enhance it, but don’t get rid of it, because you always want to know about your past so you can go forward in your future.” 

Lee added that he was also frustrated that the KKK had seemingly co-opted the entire ordeal for its own means. “I think the Ku Klux Klan capitalized on the controversy to stage a rally in Memphis, to gather attention for themselves, to bring awareness more to the Klan [than NBF].” 

About an hour later, Lee and I visited what, less than a month ago, had been known as Forrest Park. NBF’s statue watched over its domain, glaring down at us as if he were about to lead his garrison into battle. The artist who created the statue, Charles Henry Niehaus, was at the height of his craft. An American sculptor who throughout his career stayed true to the neoclassical training he received in Germany, Charles is best known for his 19th-century depictions of US President James A. Garfield, Moses, Louis IX, and other meticulously rendered statues of historical figures scattered throughout the States. His depiction of NBF is perhaps his most controversial work, but judged against the rest of his oeuvre, Charles was just doing his job: NBF looks merciless and singularly determined. 

Lee introduced me to a man standing in front of the NBF statue with a cigar in his mouth. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, one of his white-gloved hands was stuffed in his pocket, pushing aside a jacket that halfway covered what appeared to be an authentic, standard-issue Union general’s uniform. He introduced himself as General Ulysses S. Grant; the resemblance was striking. I didn’t hesitate to ask the good general’s opinion of NBF, perhaps one of his greatest rivals. “I have a very healthy respect for Nathan Bedford Forrest,” he said with the cadence of a proper Southern gentleman. 

Later, when I asked him about the city’s decision to change the name of the park—which, of course, he disagreed with—he broke character and introduced himself again, this time as E. C. Fields Jr. A local high school principal, reserve police officer, SCV member, and historical reenactor, E. C. appeared to be a prime example of a highly educated and well-spoken man who apparently had no agenda regarding the naming of the park other than his love for history. 

Feeling like reality was slipping from my grip, I got right to the point and asked E. C. if he thought NBF was racist.

“No,” he replied with a drawl. “He had the culture of the country at the time. He had no personal vendetta against any group of people; he was fighting for what he believed in.” 

What, exactly, did NBF believe in? I wondered but thought it would be futile to ask a man so enamored with the history—or perhaps a certain type of history—of the Civil War. But it seemed to be the crux of the matter, the murky but bold ethos of a man who’s proved nothing but divisive in the annals of history. 

Later, while perusing the few books written about NBF, I may have discovered the answer. In the foreword of the 1989 edition of John Allan Wyeth’s preeminent NBF biography, That Devil Forrest, Western Michigan University history professor emeritus Albert Castel writes: “Despite all the rhetoric from the South’s politicians and editors about ‘States Rights’ and ‘Southern Nationalism,’ [NBF] had no illusions about [the Civil War’s] true purpose: ‘If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin’ for?’”

After his death from diabetes-related issues in October of 1877, NBF was buried in Elmhurst Cemetery in accordance with his will. His body’s disinterment and its transfer to Forrest Park by Confederate sympathizers over 25 years later could cause one to wonder what their true motives were. While it would be very difficult to remove the statue regardless (Councilwoman Fullilove told me it would require a court order), throwing NBF’s corpse into the mix adds a macabre element to any such attempts politicans have avoided until now.   

NBF’s grave isn’t much different than the man himself: stubborn and resolute. Born dirt poor on July 13, 1821, in what is now known as Chapel Hill, Tennessee, NBF was the most unlikely of heroes. The oldest of seven brothers and three sisters, he became the head of his household when he was around 16, following the death of his blacksmith father. Almost completely illiterate throughout his life, NBF had still managed to amass a sizable fortune as a speculator, plantation owner, and slave trader. After the so-called War Between the States broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army even though he lacked formal military training of any kind. He was, however, a natural tactician and courageous woodsman, and quickly shot up through its ranks. By the time he was named lieutenant general, NBF had recruited a large and intensely loyal force culled from the South. 

Perhaps the most feared and dangerous soldier in the Confederacy, NBF’s greatest contributions to humanity were his innovative battle techniques, some of which served as the basis for US military tactics well into the 20th century. Tennessee-born poet and novelist Andrew Lytle once described NBF as a “spiritual comforter,” due to the mythical status he attained during the Reconstruction era. This may be why NBF was appointed the first head of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1800s.