Memorials and statues are common across America, but in the South it is often the villains of history that are honored. Confederate monuments need to be removed, and removing their influence on our society and historical memory is even more important.
I have lived the past eighteen years of my life constantly having to correct myself when writing the word “forest.” Having grown up in Forrest County, Mississippi as a child, I was first introduced to the word in this spelling, always capitalized and with two “r’s” instead of the standard one. It never occurred to me that there was any significance held in this extra letter. After all, should I make a mistake I could always just backtrack, remove that rogue “r”, and continue on with my writing. It was not until very recently that I learned the significance of this discrepancy.
Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, Confederate General and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, is the namesake of this county.
It is not uncommon in America for historical figures to be commemorated by the naming of spaces or the erection of statues. But in the American South, it is not always heroes that are being honored.
Who was Nathaniel Bedford Forrest?
Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, in his early adulthood, was a prominent slave trader in Memphis and owned several cotton plantations across the South, a business that made him one of the wealthiest men in the region.
After the Civil War began, Forrest quickly rose to the rank of general because of his political influence and soon after ordered The Pillow Creek Massacre—an event Historian Richard Fuchs, the author of “An Unerring Fire”, described as “a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct—intentional murder—for the vilest of reasons—racism and personal enmity.” This slaughter resulted in the death of 204 Union soldiers from the 6th U.S. Artillery, an entirely African American Unit. The deaths amounted to 78% of the all-Black unit and only 58 of the African American soldiers were taken as prisoners. In comparison, the Confederate army spared 168, or 57%, of the white Union soldiers that were present. During this battle, Confederate troops under Forrest’s command disregarded the signals of surrender and, as described by Confederate Sergeant, Achilles V. Clark, the Union soldiers “would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.”
Following the war, Forrest became involved with the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, which had been founded by six confederate veterans in the spring of 1866. By the beginning of 1867, Forrest was promoted to the highest national position, the first and only Grand Wizard of the Klan, the title a reference to his wartime nickname, “Wizard of the Saddle.” During the Spring of 1867, Forrest led the Midnight Parades, a series of violent raids through Black Southern communities in which Klansmen attacked and lynched Black voters. In the years Forrest lead recruitment, an estimated 550,000 members joined the Klan, but he continued to deny his affiliation with the terrorist organization. In 1869, Forrest attempted to disband the Klan because of the political attacks he was receiving by association, however, the Klan remains active to this day.
The American Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Moselle, Mississippi, a city less than a half an hour drive outside of Forrest County have had a recent resurgence of activity. The organization has conducted pamphlet spreading recruitment campaigns in cities across the state, most recently in Lafayette, Mississippi on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019. One of these flyers described the group as “ranks of a kindred race” with the goal to make “a nobler, purer” America as it “stands against the genocide of the white race.” These words are reminiscent of Forrest’s description of the Ku Klux Klan as "a protective political-military organization” whose “...object[ives] originally were protection against Loyal Leagues [a pro-Lincoln group] and the Grand Army of the Republic [the U.S. Army}.”
It is obvious that Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and leader of a terrorist organization that targeted Black Americans, was not a patriot. Yet, he is memorialized across the country in statues and spaces as an American Hero. And this is common among many Confederate leaders. Those who once gave their lives to separate themselves from the United States of America have become glorified as symbols of American patriotism.
The History of the Hub City
Forrest County did not receive its name until 1906, a little over forty years after the Civil War, thirty years after Nathaniel Bedford Forrest’s death, and a century since the area had first been settled.
My hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi is the largest city in Forrest County and is often referred to as the “Hub City” because of its central placement and economic importance to the State. But this central position often makes Hattiesburg the center of controversy.
Although the city of Hattiesburg was formed in 1882, seventeen years after the end of the Civil War, memorials to the Confederacy dot the city’s landscape. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that there are currently nine memorials commemorating the Confederacy within the Hattiesburg City limits. However, for residents of the city like myself, it is very easy to count dozens more: Jefferson Davis Circle, Davis Street, Jefferson Drive, Lee Avenue, Lee Circle, Lee Place, Forrest Street, Forrest Avenue, and the numerous other spaces named after Confederates, slave owners, and white supremacists.
However, Forrest County residents have begun to call for the removal of the racist names and of Confederate memorials. On Monday, June 15th, 2020, the Board of Supervisors of Forrest County held a public forum on the possibility of relocating the Confederate statue that sits outside the building. The memorial depicts three figures, the first two inscribed as representing “The Men and Women of the Confederacy.” and the other a marble depiction of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest that towers over many of the buildings in Downtown Hattiesburg.
The Board reached a split decision, the two Black councilmembers voting in favor of moving the monument and the three white councilmembers voting in opposition. During the public forum, white councilman Chris Bowen stated that the memorial represented “the people of Dixie” and that the board was “offering a racial balance by placing the Vernon Dhamer statue” on the other side of the Court House.
In a Vice News mini-documentary entitled “Mississippi is Changing Its State Flag, Confederate Statues Could be Next,” Vice Interviewer Alice Hines interviewed Bettie Dhamer, the daughter of Vernon Dhamer, a Civil Rights activist who was assassinated by the Forrest County Ku Klux Klan. Hines asked Ms. Dhamer how she felt about the Confederate Statue that sat outside of the Forrest County Courthouse. Ms. Dhamer responded, “I would like to see the statue removed, but if it is not removed I would at least like a true statement of what it represents. That it represents people who were losers, they lost the war.”
The fight to remove racist memorials from spaces across Mississippi is not one that is without pushback. However, it is also not one that is hopeless.
The Vice documentary also included an interview with the New Mississippi Youth Organization, a youth-led movement that is fighting for racial justice in Forrest County and across Mississippi. During this interview, Erin Choi, a leader in the organization, stated that they “believe enough is enough, and it’s time for a change.”
And soon, it is possible that Forrest County may no longer be named Forrest at all. As more and more residents of the county have become aware of the racist nature of its namesake, more have begun to demand the change of the county’s name. There is currently a petition on Change.org requesting that the Forrest County Board of Supervisors rename the county.
And while this change is necessary, Mississippians must also begin to address the culture that places white supremacists on these metaphorical and literal pedestals in the first place.
When I first recognized my bad habit of misspelling the word “forest,” I did not consider it a real issue. While it could be a nuisance to have to erase my additional “r” when I wrote “Forrest” instead of the correct “forest.” I did not see it significant enough to feel the need to address the underlying reason for this misspelling. I had created a habit, an unconscious understanding in my head, that led to my repeated misspelling. And while I could always erase every time I recognized my mistake, that would not amend the underlying inclination that caused my error, nor would it ensure that I did not let a rogue “r” slip past my attention and go without correction.
And that is what our country is living in. A culture that has allowed us to believe that white supremacist history is the history we should place above people of color’s history—or a history we should commemorate at all. America has indoctrinated its citizens into accepting that only white history is memorialized and that people of color’s history is somehow less American or less deserving. Unless we, as a society, make a conscious effort to fix this systemic racism in our culture, it does not matter how many memorials we remove or spaces we rename. More memorials will be built and more racists will become namesakes.
The only way to address a bad habit is to unlearn what one is doing wrong.
For me to correct my habit of misspelling “forest,” I had to continuously write the word correctly until I no longer had the unconscious urge to write it incorrectly. And it did not happen immediately. The learning curve required me making a deliberate thought to correct my behavior every time I was presented with writing this word.
While removing a Confederate monument or renaming a county will not correct the systemic racism that exists in this county overnight, it is a necessary step in unlearning and dismantling this culture. In relearning how we look at history. In relearning whose history we prioritize. And examining who we allow our society to place on these pedestals.
Julia Comino is a freshman majoring in Political Science and Journalism. She is a staff writer for the Agora.
Image courtesy Thomas R Machnitzki, Creative Commons