Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Have you ever heard gossip about someone that was so far from the truth, that you were amazed these statements had ever been said?

Do you step forward to correct the historic record, or do you retreat and decide not to defend your friend with what you know as truth?

This is the question historians find themselves faced with as the reputation of a man, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is besmirched by those with an agenda not for truth, but to rewrite history and change the name of Forrest High School.

Forrest (1821-1877) was a famous Southern military leader, a brilliant strategist and a gentleman who made his mark in what Southerners call the War of Northern Aggression.

To paint every general on the losing side as a racist simply because you don’t like the South is a travesty that the facts of history will knock down time and time again.

Yes, Forrest was a great general in an unpopular war, but when the war ended, Forrest accepted the outcome and then sought reconciliation with those around him.

He worked diligently to rebuild the New South and earnestly to generate employment for black Southerners.

His leadership and character did not fade because the South had been defeated. Instead he used who he was, accepted the outcome, and used his fame and talents for others’ good.

At an early convention of the Pole-Bearers, whose beginnings prefaced the NAACP, it was Forrest who was invited to speak. History records no disrespect at the meeting; instead both the Pole-Bearers and Forrest behaved with mutual respect and decorum. He was the guest speaker, and historically the first white invited to be the keynote speaker.

Forrest was asked because the group was said to have wanted to extend union and peace to others, but what happened in further actions was even more important.

The event began with a young black woman, the daughter of a leader of the Pole-Bearers, offering him a small bouquet of flowers signifying the peace intended.

Forrest received the flowers and then spoke from his heart to the gathering. His actions and recorded words testify that this gentleman was in truth a civil rights advocate, a believer in the rights of all people.

He said, "I came here with jeers of some white people who think what I am doing is wrong. I believe I can exert some influence … and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms and wherever you are capable of going."

He apologized for having no formal speech, but continued, "When I can serve you, I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me that are wrong, and which black and white persons here who stood by me through the war can contradict."

He went on to say "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief."

It should be noted that both black and white soldiers fought under Forrest against the North. Many were in attendance at this Memphis address. When Forrest’s cavalry abdicated in May of 1865, the muster included 65 black soldiers. Forrest described those gentlemen as soldiers amid his finest.

Yes, Forrest was a Southern general whose war strategies were unmatched. Yes, the war that began over states rights brought forth welcome transition to the civil rights we are so thankful for today.

But to vilify a leader and twist history to flame your rhetoric is simply not honorable.

It is easy for any writer or speaker to rail against others without a basis of knowledge, but it is wrong. It is easy to choose not to defend a person’s reputation, especially because he and his comrades of all races are dead. That, too, is wrong.

But it is especially wrong, especially heinous to vilify a person calling him a racist, or any such other slanderous contemptible word, when the gentleman in question sought to rebuild the South, to unify the nation and to edify blacks as worthy of their places in the community and worthy of their well-earned civil rights.

Forrest and other generals like him should be held in honor because of their wartime abilities, their leadership and their love for country and fellowman.

And when they are vilified, honorable men should stand up to set the record straight.

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