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A KKK Grand Wizard Is Getting a Day in His Honor in Tennessee — for the 98th Year

"I signed the [proclamation] because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law," said Gov. Bill Lee

by Alex Lubben
Jul 12 2019, 9:52pm

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If you’re in Tennessee, we’d like to wish you a very unhappy Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.

The governor of the state is required by a decades-old state law to issue a proclamation to honor the Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader every year on his birthday, July 13. So the new governor, Republican Bill Lee, issued this year's proclamation in advance of the Saturday “special observance,” without complaint or any condemnation of Forrest’s dark past. Lee could push to change the law and free himself of the requirement to celebrate a Klan leader, but he didn't indicate he would.

"I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law," Lee said Thursday, according to the Tennessean.

Indeed, the 1921 law requires proclamations for six such special observances a year, including two others related to the Confederacy. Tennessee also declares Jan. 19 Robert E. Lee Day, a tribute to the commander of the Confederate army. June 3, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis’s birthday, is declared Confederate Decorations Day. Until 1969, each of those days was a legal state holiday.

But Lee wouldn’t say whether he thought the law that requires him to sign the declaration should change.

The official declaration refers to the Klan leader as only “a recognized military figure in American history and native Tennessean.”

And Klan-affiliated, he was. He was the first Grand Wizard, and is believed to be responsible for Confederates massacring black Union troops. at Ft. Pillow during the Civil War, though his involvement has been disputed. He did eventually appear to renounce the Klan, and even called for its dissolution.

There’s a bust of him in Tennessee’s capitol that’s drawn protests. A (very ugly) statue of Forrest was taken down from the Health Sciences Park in Memphis, and a bust a Jefferson Davis was removed from Memphis Park, but the bust in the capital is still there, much to activists’ chagrin.

Back in 2015, there was a big celebration for Forrest in the park where his statue was. Present-day Confederates marked his birthday with music, wreath-laying and a 21-gun salute.

As for Gov. Lee, there’s a photo of him dressed in a Confederate Army uniform in a college yearbook. “I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that participating in that was insensitive and I’ve come to regret it,” he said.

Tennessee, however, isn’t the only state to honor Confederates. Florida, in 2018, finally announced that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee’s birthdays would no longer be state holidays. Davis’s birthday is technically on the books, but state employees don’t get the day off, there was an effort to get rid of the holidays in Kentucky back in 2017, after the violence in Charlottesville, but the bill didn’t pass.

In Alabama, both men’s birthdays are still official state holidays.

Cover: In this Dec. 28, 2017, photo, a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is splattered with pink paint after being vandalized in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)