The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are 1,747 public symbols of the Confederacy still in place in the United States.
Rather than take down salutes to the losing side after the American Civil War, as was the case following the Revolutionary War, World War II, and the U.S. invasion in Iraq, monuments went up.
In his new book, Down Along with That Devil's Bones, author Connor Towne O'Neill explores dedications to Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the cities of Selma, Alabama, and the Tennessee cities of Murfreesboro, Nashville and Memphis.
In an interview with WKU Public Radio, O'Neill discusses how Forrest's record, as both the revered officer who became the most promoted soldier on either side of the war, and the massacring general nicknamed "That Devil" who became an early Ku Klux Klan leader, make him a symbol of the South, for better or for worse.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and timing.
Revering him in that way means that you have to leave out all of these ways in which he present at and participating in horrific instances, systems of racial violence in the country. But he is he is seen as this almost a sort of what could have been. Because as you say, he was in the western theater of the war. He wasn't like Robert E. Lee, he was not in Gettysburg, he's not in these major climactic turning points of the war. I think, in Confederate memories, he exists as a sort of, if only Forrest had been promoted, if only Forrest was given a larger role to play in the war, then the South might have won.
What is it about Confederate monuments, especially to Nathan Bedford Forrest, that strikes such a chord in people's hearts?
I think that in some ways he represents an idea of what the South is for some people, in the best ways for some and in the worst ways for others. He's such a polarizing figure. And I think that the controversies over if we should remember Forrest, how we should remember Forrest are really stand-ins for how we should think about our history in a much broader sense, and what the consequences that history is. How the legacy of slavery still shapes and determines so much of our life these days, becomes filtered through a debate about the central figure from the war and from the slave trade and from the Klan. Because he's so centrally involved in so many questions that a debate about his monuments really becomes a debate about the consequences of our history.
There are three or four cities, you focus on, Selma, Alabama, as well as Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Memphis, all of which, of course, are in Tennessee, and you choose those cities because there are monuments or salutes to Forrest there. But the book's not really about the monuments so much as the conversation around the monuments.
These monuments and the dates of these monuments monuments were interesting to me, because they were a sort of clothes lines that I could hang so many other interesting debates and conversations around. There were fascinating characters to me, both people challenging his legacy and trying to get the monuments out and the people who were defending these monuments. And...watching those, those two groups sort of square off again, appeared to me as a sort of microcosm about much bigger questions about how we how we come to terms with our history, how we face white supremacy, how we can begin to address the lasting injury of slavery.
And what is it about these four cities in particular, I'm thinking of Nashville where when I saw that you'll be covering Nashville, my mind immediately went to in the state capitol, but that's not the one you chose. So what was it about these four monuments that really stood out to you? And why did you choose the ones you did?
Yeah, that's a great question. I think I chose the ones because they had unfolding stories going that I could follow and sharp characters that I could talk to, interview, and follow their story...To your question about Nashville, right? There are two very conspicuous monuments, of course, in Nashville. One in the state capitol, and the other on the road side of I-65 in South Nashville. And I knew, just given the shape of the book and the structure of the book, I was going to have to pick one or the other. And that was a difficult choice. But I ended up picking the one in South Nashville, this sort of horrific, grotesque kind of animated, your cartoonish statue of Forrest because the story of the man who sculpted it I think revealed so much about people who work to uphold white supremacy in this country. The sculptor, a man named Jack Kershaw was the central figure in Tennessee fighting school integration in the 1950s. He was James Earl Ray's lawyer in the 1970s, the man who assisinated Martin Luther King. And then, in the 90s, he co founded a group known as the League of the South, who would go on to be responsible for instigating some of the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and, of course, he was the sculptor of the grotesque monument of Forrest. So writing about that statue, let me pull in battles about school integration, assassination of Dr. King, Charlottesville even. So it went this sort of full spectrum of stories to write about.
You draw frequent parallels from the cause of the Confederacy to the Jim Crow South to however you want to describe this moment and its fight against Confederate iconography as the "same war, same general." Why is that important to recognize?
Because it means that we haven't escaped our history, it means that we're not immune from it. That is, the consequences of the Civil War continue to haunt us to continue to determine so much of American life from the racial wealth gap to access to health care, housing, [and] good education. So I think we're going to continue to have moments of racial reckoning up until we really address the fact that we haven't overcome the legacy of the racial hierarchy and that we continue to justify it.
Is it safe to say it's time to lay Forrest to rest?
I mean, lay the honoring Forrest to rest. I think one of the surprising things about writing this book, though, was that Forrest turned out to teach me more about American history than almost anything else. I think...when I started writing this book, I was one of those people that held some pretty naive ideas about what this country was and what our history meant in the present. And it was only me, in studying history [and] who was involved in so many of these flashpoints of racial reckoning, that I came to see that our history is terrifying. And that terrifying history means that our present is terrifying.
Do we take down statues? Do we leave them up with added context? Or do we let them be and try to educate our children better for the future?
The added context question is interesting. That was on the table for Middle Tennessee State. That was one of the options for the university put forward. They might change the name of Forrest Hall, keep the name as Forrest Hall, keep it with added context. And at the start of reporting on that, on that campaign, I was interested in what it might look like to add context and wondered if it might be powerful for the school to say publicly look, "In the aftermath of Brown v. Board, before we had integrated, we decided to name this building after Forrest," and document some of the history that he represents, I thought that might have been interesting. But, the more I talked to the students there, they said there's nothing interesting about walking to 9 a.m. biology at the building that's named for a man who didn't think I was a human being.