Too many uncertainties to condemn or commemorate Forrest

By David Martin

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Every time I see the word ‘Mississippi’ in a newspaper, I instantly cringe. Not because I expect  Mississippi to disappoint me again; but because I know that the story will be written by a journalist who neither understands, nor attempts to understand the people of this state.

Last week, for example, an opinion was featured here which condemned the Sons of Confederate Veterans for trying to propose a commemorative Nathan Bedford Forrest license plate. The author condemned Forrest of being personally responsible for a wartime massacre. While I will not get into the details, Forrest’s direct involvement in the massacre is uncertain in many respects. For the single letter that the author showed that condemns Forrest, there are three which absolve him.

Oh and about his KKK involvement? The U.S. Congress’ investigation into the KKK declared Forrest to be a non-member who used his influence on the terrorist group to implore them to disband. Forrest himself claimed to be relieved that three racists in the (pre-violence) KKK were shot by the group because they wore hoods and tried to terrorize African Americans.

I am not saying Forrest was innocent, not by a long shot. He is the last Confederate I would want to represent Mississippi, simply because his name is associated with these awful groups and racist ideas. Personally, I would rather avoid conflict altogether and not see these license plates made if it would offend even one person (and it would). I am saying, though, that every coin has two sides. Trying to honor Forrest might be incomprehensible to the author of the previous article, but when he condemns the Sons of Confederate Veterans as ‘stupid’ for attempting a simple homage, he risks being just as biased and worse: published.

The point is that if we really expect Mississippi’s image to improve, we are going to have to investigate the facts more thoroughly before encouraging an idea to be publicly scorned. If this license plate deserves our scorn, so too does the Hattiesburg courthouse. After all, it features a portrait of Forrest as its centerpiece, right above a medal of honor. What’s worse is our entire campus is located in Forrest County!  Should our campus and city by condemned as indefensibly racist as well?

If we want Mississippi to shake off its negative stereotypes, we must all think more objectively. Rather than condemning, we should analyze and try to understand all viewpoints; then, and only then, should we choose to condemn the villains.

This month is Black History Month.  I do not want to take away the significance of this month by focusing any more on the wrong issues, like exonerating racists or examining offensive license plates. However, until we can respect ourselves, and realize that Mississippi today is not like Mississippi in 1960 or even 1860; and that our history is not just black and white, but also grey, we will never fully break the awful associations between us and our negative stereotype.

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