Remains of Confederate general and KKK leader no longer welcome in historic park

The interred remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife could be moved, if the Memphis City Council gets its way.

Adrian Sainz/AP
In this Feb. 6, 2013 file photo, a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest sits on a concrete pedestal at a park named after the confederate cavalryman in Memphis Tenn.

On Tuesday, the Memphis City Council unanimously approved a resolution to move the remains of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife from Health Sciences Park. 

Gen. Forrest is a popular yet highly controversial figure. After the Civil War, he served as the first leader or “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan when it formed in 1866. 

State officials across the country have been calling for the eradication of Confederate symbols, icons, and monuments from key sites in recent weeks. Yet if the council’s plan goes through, it would be the first attempt to disinter the corpse of a Confederate leader as a symbolic gesture to denounce Dixie’s white-supremacist history.

“What we’ve done here in Memphis is no different from what’s happening across the country,” said Myron Lowery, chairman of the City Council, referring to the recent movement to eliminate the Confederate battle flag and monuments from courthouses and other historic sites. “I think it’s time to remove symbols of racism and bigotry,” Councilman Lowery told the Monitor.

Lowery says he made the proposal to move the remains after 21-year old Dylan Roof was charged with murdering nine parishioners at the predominantly black Emanuel AME Church in June. Photos of Roof posing with the Civil War-era flag surfaced online after the shooting, igniting a national dispute over state-sanctioned Confederate symbols.

Memphis City Council members are now also working to remove Forrest’s statue from the park. 

"The Forrest family is solidly opposed to digging up the graves and moving them any place," said Lee Millar of the Sons Of Confederate Veterans, a hereditary organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers.

"This appears to me to be another knee jerk reaction to that anti-Confederate hysteria,” Mr. Millar told a local Memphis paper. “Some people here are trying to get on the bandwagon in erasing Confederate history and it's just wrong.” 

While the statue of the Confederate general in Health Sciences Park is still standing, Lowery is hopeful that will change soon. After Tennessee saw a bipartisan call to remove a bust of Forrest from its Senate chamber alcove, he says, “We feel that we have support from the state." 

Forrest’s remains were in Elmwood Cemetery before they were moved to the Health Sciences Park in the early 20th century. The park was originally dubbed Forrest Park. But in 2013, officials renamed it along with other parks named to honor Confederates.

The cemetery said it would accept the graves of Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery, but nothing is set in stone just yet. “It’s not a done deal,” Lowery says.

The city council’s decision is one of many recent efforts to change the face of the southern states.

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has called to evict a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky statehouse rotunda. Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said “it would be important that we look at some of the Confederate statues positioned in the Capitol rotunda in Washington.”

Kenneth Janken, a University of North Carolina historian, discussed the post-Charleston shift in thinking among both liberals and conservatives in a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “Things can be reversed, they can be revoked,” he said. 

“Compared to 1898, people now have a more broadly democratic idea of how power should be exercised. Why should that not be reflected in the monuments you choose to have, or the monuments you choose to retire?”

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