Nathan Bedford Forrest was a cotton planter and a trader in horses, cattle and black people. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Forrest, whose business dealings had made him wealthy, raised a cavalry unit to fight for the Confederacy. He is remembered as an instinctive military genius whose daring and unpredictability gave Union forces fits.
He is also remembered for leading a rebel band that overwhelmed a Union stronghold, Fort Pillow, Tenn., massacring 300 mostly black soldiers and civilians, including children, after the soldiers had dropped their weapons. According to official reports, black soldiers were nailed to logs, buried alive, gunned down where they stood.
Finally, Forrest is remembered as a founder and the first “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, is America’s pre-eminent terrorist group; in its various permutations, it has been responsible for countless acts of violence against African-Americans and others it deemed inferior, including the notorious 1963 church bombing in which four little black girls were killed.
This is the legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest. At this writing, the state of Mississippi is considering whether to honor that legacy through the issuance of vanity license plates.
And perhaps an observer might be forgiven for wondering what in the world there is to consider. The request to honor Forrest was made by the Mississippi branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group often found neck deep in attempts to rewrite and sanitize the odious history of the Confederacy. For what it’s worth, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has said he doesn’t think the state legislature will approve the vanity plate. But he rejected a call by the Mississippi NAACP to denounce the idea. “I don’t go around denouncing people,” he said, piously.
Presumably, he would be equally nonjudgmental if his state were to consider similar honors to Osama bin Laden, convicted spy Robert Hanssen or Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Their legacies, after all, are combined in Forrest: terrorist, traitor, mass murderer.
On April 12, it will be 150 years since the Civil War began. That is the distance from telegraph lines to smart phones, from steam engines to space shuttles, from Lincoln to Obama. And yet even after all that time, some of us are still unable to conquer the moral cowardice exemplified by Gov. Barbour and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The South fought in defense of racism and slavery. It was soundly defeated, racism and slavery soundly repudiated. You’d think from that loss the South would have learned signal lessons of human rights and human dignity.
The past exists for one overriding purpose: to prepare us for the future. It is the great and wise teacher, though its lessons are often purchased at monstrous cost. Such was surely the case with the Civil War: 620,000 lives — 2 percent of the population — lost, the South left devastated.
Yet sometimes, you wonder if the South even knows it lost.
Because, instead of learning those costly lessons and moving forward, too much of the South has spent too much of the last century and a half denying them and looking backward. It did so first through the expedient of lynch mob violence and Jim Crow laws. Now it clings to discredited 19th-century symbols like driftwood, obsessively reworks history trying to make the facts other than what they are.
But the facts are immutable.
You wish the South would finally accept that and move on. Instead, too many in that storied region are still absorbed in fighting a war that ended in 1865, seeking to vindicate a cause long ago lost. A man who betrayed this country, founded a terrorist group and committed mass murder is a man unworthy of honor.
It is pathetic that that even needs to be said.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.