KKK leader on specialty license plates? Plan in Mississippi raises hackles.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans want to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who subsequently joined the Ku Klux Klan, on some Mississippi license plates in 2014.

By , Staff writer

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    Greg Stewart, a member of the Mississippi Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, displays a sample of the latest Civil War sesquicentennial tag that is being sold, left, adjacent to the current tag in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday. A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
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Plans for a Mississippi specialty license plate honoring controversial Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest are reviving tensions over "unreconstructed" Southerners and their place in the modern South.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans want to honor Forrest on a 2014 specialty license plate. Mississippi has more than 150 specialty plates, the most popular ones being "Choose Life" and NASCAR-related license plates.

But the state NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and a Facebook group are raising objections, saying that a state-sanctioned Forrest license plate sends a not-so-subtle signal to African-Americans that Mississippi condones a man who helped start the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Forrest's involvement in the KKK gave the organization a credibility that helped boost its popularity.

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Forrest is one of the most controversial – and popular – icons of the war. A Tennessee native, he raised his own militia at the start of the war and rose quickly from a private to a lieutenant general. He drew praise for his battlefield courage, as well as criticism for a raid on Fort Pillow, Tenn., where his troops massacred a black Union regiment.

Forrest's visage on a license plate is a reminder, experts say, of the lingering debate in US society about the appropriateness of state-sanctioned Confederate symbols and icons.

"The thing that made [Forrest] so popular ... is that he remained unreconstructed, still the fiery rebel," says Mike Martinez, a political scientist and expert on Confederate symbols at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. "He became a symbol of, 'Hell, no, we won't capitulate,' and that was extremely affecting for many Southerners who were smarting from battlefield losses."

After the war, Forrest – bitter and nearly broke – joined the nascent Ku Klux Klan. But he disassociated himself after 18 months, finding that the organization lacked a proper military hierarchy.

"Trying to decipher reality from spin [in the case of Forrest] is hard," says John Coski, a historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. "Was Forrest the founder of the Klan? No. Is he the one who asked the Klan to cease and desist? It's not clear where the truth on that lies."

Along with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Forrest is by far one of the most popular Civil War generals, at least judging by sales trends of modern-day depictions of those icons. "It's that military rags-to-riches story that's part of the allure of Forrest," says Mr. Coski.

But for many critics, Forrest's legacy is one of hatred, dissent, and rebellion – hardly notions that a state like Mississippi, which has struggled to escape its racist past, should advertise, state NAACP president Derrick Johnson told the Associated Press.

"He should be viewed in the same light that we view Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden," he said. "The state of Mississippi should deny any vanity tags which would highlight racial hatred in this state."

For some, Forrest has been central to attempts to understand the war and assimilate its lessons in the modern era.

"[Historian] Shelby Foote told [filmmaker] Ken Burns that two geniuses came out of the Civil War: Lincoln and Forrest," Mr. Martinez says.

But many modern-day Americans still see Forrest as an offensive image radiating out of Mississippi.

"I wonder how they'd feel if [Ohio], birthplace of General W. Tecumseh Sherman, proposed a license plate depicting Sherman on a horse with a torch in hand and a silhouette of Atlanta in the background?" commenter Tinsk writes on TPM Muckraker.

To be sure, Confederate symbols and icons "are sort of like the middle finger: You're not going to tell us what to do," Martinez says. "That's ... enormously appealing, not to a large segment, but a segment that's very vocal."

But he adds: "To say this is only about heritage is being disingenuous. But to say it's only about hate, that's disingenuous as well. The problem is, you never solve this issue, because both sides are talking about their viewpoint. But they're both sort of right and wrong."

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