Legendary Memphis newspaper editor Ida B. Wells was targeted for assassination--and driven into exile--for exposing the lies that were routinely used to justify hanging, dismembering and burning alive African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
Whites were particularly outraged when Wells said in an incendiary editorial, "Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women"--implying that rape accusations that preceded lynchings arose from the discovery of consensual sex between black men and white women.
By the time Wells took refuge in the North in 1892, white Southerners had made racial terrorism a fact of life and embarked on a propaganda campaign that romanticized slavery, idealized the Confederate past, and held that white supremacy would restore lost Southern greatness. The Confederate monuments that sprang up in public spaces across the South--and that still stand today--were an essential part of that campaign.
Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were popular choices for veneration. But Wells' beloved city of Memphis set its sights on Tennessee's native son, the Civil War general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. A monument of Forrest astride his horse towered over a public park in the city for more than a century until shortly before Christmas, when the city overcame state opposition to finally dismantle it.
During the Civil War, Forrest presided over the slaughter of surrendering Union troops--many of them black--at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. He later served as the Ku Klux Klan's first grand wizard, consolidating a ragtag collection of secret societies into a group that became a factor in national civic life.
The majority-black city of Memphis had long chafed under the Confederate monuments and place names. But citizens were particularly unhappy with the looming presence of Forrest, who embodied the predations of white supremacy that Wells had inveighed against in the 19th century.
The City Council expressed that long-simmering discontent five years ago when it expunged Confederate names from three city parks. The Council argued sensibly that the names were intolerable for a majority-black city and anathema to the cosmopolitan image that Memphis wanted to project.
The Council voted to remove the Forrest monument from what is now Health Sciences Park in 2015, soon after a Confederate-flag-waving white supremacist murdered nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C., church.
The Tennessee Legislature in 2016 made it more difficult for municipalities to remove historical monuments. In the end, the city sidestepped the law by selling two of its parks at a nominal fee to a nonprofit group. Within hours of the sale, the Forrest monument and an equally despised statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had been hauled away.
Many of the Confederate monuments that dot the American South date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period that Wells depicts in her bloodcurdling pamphlet Southern Horrors. But it would be a mistake to think of Confederate memorials and building names exclusively as artifacts of the lynching era.
A 2016 analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center identified more than 1,500 publicly sponsored symbols and place names across the nation. It also showed two waves of Confederate memorials and building namings, the first in the period between 1900 and the 1920s and the second between the 1950s and the 1960s, during the segregationist backlash to the civil rights movement.
The Jefferson Davis memorial that Memphis recently removed is of that vintage. It was dedicated in 1964, the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A Tennessee state law passed in 1969 still requires the governor to issue a yearly proclamation commemorating July 13 as a day to honor Forrest.
The law commemorating Forrest may have been the Legislature's way of thumbing its nose at the civil rights movement. Perhaps it reflects a broader backlash from Confederate nostalgists determined to force those repulsed by Forrest into his shadow. Whatever the motivation, the law is particularly appalling at a time when white supremacists are rallying to the Confederate cause and sowing hate from coast to coast.
Tennessee lawmakers can no longer plausibly deny the white supremacist origins of the Confederate monument movement. It would be a mistake for legislators to react to the eviction of Forrest from Memphis by further curtailing the rights of munici-palities that want to be rid of Confederate memorials. If lawmakers take that approach, the state will be deservedly mocked for trying to turn back the clock to the year 1900, a bloody and shameful time in the annals of Southern history.
Editorial on 01/14/2018
Print Headline: Monuments to white supremacy