Opinion » Viewpoint

Statue of Limitations

Let's not subtract the general. Let's just add other heroes.



Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey says we should talk about renaming parks that honor Confederates. I have to admit that few things would entertain me more than seeing the Confederacy finally get whipped at its last stand in Memphis, Tennessee.

But them pesky neo-Rebels are always itching for a good media frenzy, and I'm just wondering if we can't find a better way to help our city outgrow its Old South fixation. Sure, we could topple that big bronze statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and dance on his grave, literally, but erasing a symbol of racial division will not erase the reality of that. Renaming our parks might treat a few symptoms, but can it cure the disease?

As William Faulkner said of the South: "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." No matter how deeply we bury our dead, they keep lunging out of the graveyard to spoil the tea party. I think our best hope is to expose our troubled past to more fresh air and sunshine, rather than less.

Fact: Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brilliant soldier and strategist who inspired the respect of allies and enemies alike. As it became clear that the Confederacy was losing the war, Forrest decided that the institution of slavery was also doomed. He then freed the 45 slaves who had served his troops as teamsters.

Fact: Forrest was a slave trader and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. In the early days of the Civil War, he said, "If we ain't fightin' to keep slavery, what the hell are we fightin' for?" Forrest fought to preserve a social structure that classed black Americans as chattel, and his words remain a potent challenge to neo-Confederate attempts to rewrite history.

Faulkner also said, "Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other." But the truth is, Forrest was neither a devil nor a saint. He was a complicated man whose story can teach us valuable lessons if we choose to listen. Does Forrest deserve to be publicly honored by a community that struggles daily with the painful legacy of slavery and the Civil War? Only if we are ready to try telling the whole story.

The heart of a community is revealed in the people it chooses as heroes. If the tainted glory of Nathan Bedford Forrest is the best we can offer the next generation of Memphians, we are as doomed as the Confederacy. It is plain that our collective heart is still bitterly divided.

But rather than toppling statues, how about if we build more of them? We need a big bronze statue of Ida B. Wells-Barnett in Court Square. We need a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on Main Street. We need a statue of Rosa Parks kicking up her heels on Beale. We need to celebrate life as we honor death, to work for peace even as we remember war. We need to try to be better than ourselves.

So here's what I would do about the late great Nathan Bedford: I would change the name of Forrest Park to Unity Park. At the north end of the park (of course), I would build a big bronze statue of that brilliant soldier and strategist Ulysses S. Grant. In the heart of the park, beneath all those beautiful oak trees, I would build a sobering memorial to our brothers and sisters who fought and suffered and died on both sides of the Civil War.

Then I would build a playground for the kids.

Naomi Van Tol is an environmental activist and writer.

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