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Hate, Heritage, or History?



H.K. Edgerton has been called a civil rights activist, an irony, and at a recent public forum at the Pyramid about renaming three parks, a Sambo.

Edgerton, both a staunch supporter of the Confederate flag and an African American, was in Memphis last Thursday to protest the proposed name change of the so-called Confederate parks: Forrest Park, Confederate Park, and Jefferson Davis Park. In the morning, he stood at attention beside the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, brandishing his flag and talking about black Confederate soldiers with an African-American man who had once seen a Ku Klux Klan rally in that very same park.

"This is a memorial to the honorable Nathan Bedford Forrest who gave his life and the life of the men who served with him to defend the homeland," said Edgerton. "I am very proud of General Forrest and my Southland and here I stand, in defense of her."

To some at the forum, the symbols of the Confederacy -- and the parks -- are a source of pride; to others, a painful reminder of days-not-so-long-past.

Before the forum, I was on the fence about the parks. I can see how people who have pride in their cultural heritage would not want its legacy dismantled. And I understand how a monument to the first leader of the KKK might not be embraced by the African-American community. Honestly, though, my initial reaction was: What's the big deal? Change the names; don't change the names. We're talking about the names of three parks, maybe four acres of land. The way most local parks look right now, I don't think anyone -- Robert Church, Martin Luther King Jr., or Jefferson Davis -- would want to claim them.

Then the forum turned out to be one of the nastiest public displays of bad behavior I've witnessed in a long time (it's been a while since I covered the school board). People on both sides of the issue were disrespectful, booing and jeering while speakers were at the microphone. There was name calling; there was shouting. Several times, I found myself looking around for security, wondering who could break up the impending race riot.

Seeing that, I've got to tell you: I don't think the names of a few parks are the biggest problem. The fact that this issue -- park names! -- inspires people on both sides to near violence shows how far we are from real racial harmony.

For starters, if our leaders want change for the African-American community, they need to begin with something more concrete. Something that's going to make a real difference in people's everyday lives: health-care, education, etc.

A lot of people at the forum talked about history and how you can't change it. I agree. But by the same logic, renaming these parks wouldn't erase history or destroy anyone's heritage. If you're proud of your relatives who fought at Shiloh, you should be proud of them, park or no.

At the same time, renaming those parks would be solely cosmetic, a whitewash of a problem that we still haven't solved. It reminds me of plastic surgery. You might look better to the outside world, but underneath, things are still the same.

And maybe that's the most important thing. We need to keep the park names to remind us where we've been and where, to some extent, we still are.

Changing a park name won’t change the past. The question should be: How are we going to change the future?

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