MTSU is taking the right approach to a new debate over Forrest Hall, the military science building named for the embattled Confederate general.

Instead of reacting at the first sign of student complaints about the recognition of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the university is opting for a civil discourse on the matter, one in which "town hall" meetings and the historical topic of the Civil War can be debated before a decision is made.

The issue arose when the Student Government Association recently voted to remove Forrest’s name from the building because of his days as a slave trader and supporter of the post-war Ku Klux Klan. The vote was initiated by a black student’s petition for removal.

Another student group, however, circulated its own petition in response, saying Forrest’s name should be preserved because of his contributions to military science. His flanking tactics and military raids as a Southern cavalry leader are said to be the forerunner of those used by some World War II generals.

Forrest’s accomplishments as an uneducated, but fierce, fighter who enraged Union generals with his guerrilla warfare are not in doubt.

But his role during the slaughter at Fort Pillow and establishment of the Klan after the war leaves a cloud over his accomplishments. Under his leadership, Confederate forces demanded surrender at Fort Pillow north of Memphis, and when they didn’t get it, killed 162 of 262 black troops and 131 of 295 white troops there.

Whether he authorized the massacre or his men simply killed uncontrollably has been debated for more than 140 years. His primary nemesis, Gen. William T. Sherman, eventually exonerated him of any wrongdoing at Fort Pillow or as a traitor of the Union.

His participation in the Klan immediately after the war is also sketchy. Some reports call him the first Grand Wizard, though Forrest claimed he was never officially a member and wound up calling for it to be disbanded. Nevertheless, he did sympathize with the Klan and said he could quickly raise an army of its members to do battle with the Union Army during the harsh days of Southern Reconstruction.

As a result, Forrest will always be connected with this terrorist organization and the reprehensible acts it committed against black Americans and those who worked for civil rights during the 20th century.

Thought not as bold as 80 years ago, the Klan is still active today and working to undermine freedoms that all Americans should enjoy. It’s a bitter reminder of the great stain that lay on this country during its formative years when slavery was legal.

Try as some people might, it’s difficult for slavery to be separated from the Civil War. It’s at the root of every reason the North and South waged the bloody affair that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Accepted as a way of life, the institution wasn’t banished until Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation two years into the war. Likewise, it took another 100 years before the South broke down the walls of segregation.

As "separate but equal" slowly fell, so did the old signs of the Old South. The Forrest symbols used by MTSU at the request of President Q.M. Smith in 1938 began to fade away in the ’60s, along with the Forrest character that rode his horse onto Jones Field during football games.

A plaque honoring Forrest was removed from Keathley University Center in the late 1980s following student complaints, but the Army ROTC building has kept the name Forrest Hall since being built in 1954, university officials said.

Whether it should be removed is up to the university, including its staff, faculty and students. A campus-wide referendum might help in making the decision.

But one thing is certain amid all of the debate about Forrest. It’s always good to have a healthy discussion about our past, the present and where we’re going. In America, we all have the freedom now — in contrast to the days of slavery and segregation — to express our views, and MTSU’s decision to give everyone a chance to speak on this controversial subject is a good lesson in American civics.

Everyone with an opinion should take advantage of this great opportunity.

Copyright ©2006 The Daily News Journal

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