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VOL. 39 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 3, 2015

Southern heritage defined differently across Tennessee

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Tennessee’s loyalty was divided in the Civil War, and 150 years later, little is changed as the debate over Confederate symbols arises in the wake of the racist-fueled South Carolina church massacre.

Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick are calling for removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust from the state Capitol as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley seeks to eliminate the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds there.

Confederate specialty license tags could be taken out of circulation as well in Tennessee, with new legislation sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jason Powell of Nashville and Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) to end recognition of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

While state flags in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South pay tribute to the Confederacy, the Tennessee flag does not and isn’t a focus of the current debate.

According to the flag’s designer, Captain LeRoy Reeves of the Third Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, “the three stars are of pure white, representing the three grand divisions of the state.’’ The flag was officially adopted by the Legislature in 1905.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that during the Civil War, Tennessee considered adding the stars and bars to the flag, “but the motion appears not to have been acted upon.’’

The Confederate flag seen flying these days was never the official flag of the Confederate States of America, according to civilwar.com. It’s not even the original “stars and bars.” Rather, it was used as a battle flag to enable commanders to differentiate from the U.S. flag and was incorporated into other Confederate flags.

A century and a-half after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., many Americans believe the Confederate flag is a relic of a lost cause, especially with white supremacist groups wrapping themselves in the Southern battle flag as they spread a message of hate to warped minds such as that of Dylann Roof, the South Carolina shooting suspect reportedly intent on starting a racial war.

Haslam, a Republican, hails from Knoxville, and Alexander from Maryville. Upper East Tennessee was largely pro-Union before, during and after the war, with less than 25 percent of Knox County voters supporting secession in June 1861, according to a report created for the East Tennessee Historical Society.

Similarly, Republicans Corker and McCormick are from Chattanooga, where fewer than half of Hamilton County voters backed secession.

But they are running into the long-held argument by leaders such as Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state Rep. Steve McDaniel that removing those symbols is an attempt to erase the state’s and nation’s history, leaving Americans doomed to repeat it.

Although most of Upper East Tennessee was pro-Union during the Civil War era, Ramsey’s Sullivan County was the only county in that region with a majority backing secession.

On the other hand, McDaniel, a Republican from Parkers Crossroads in West Tennessee, site of a Civil War battle, hails from Henderson County where fewer than half of voters supported secession.

“The event in South Carolina is a horrific action, just unbelievable. But there seems to be a wildfire burning across the country. And if we’re not careful it’ll consume history,” says McDaniel, deputy House speaker, a Civil War battlefield preservationist and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Too often, people don’t understand history and judge figures such as Forrest against today’s standards, McDaniel says. “Today, no one would condone slavery,” he adds.

Forrest, a Southern cavalry brigadier general known for backwoods smarts and fierce fighting (he reportedly killed 30 men and had 29 horses shot out from under him), may have gained as much notoriety after the war as he did during it.

He was a slave trader before the war and is believed to be largely responsible for the massacre of white and black troops at Fort Pillow near Memphis, though it is unclear whether he ordered the killing of surrendering U.S. soldiers or stopped it.

He also was named the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, according to most historical reports, but later was said to have repudiated the group and its efforts to keep black citizens from voting.

A recent letter from Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell doesn’t mention Forrest, but it encourages the Tennessee Capitol Commission to start evaluating the “characteristics” of Tennesseans recognized in the Capitol.

“Those honored in the Capitol should be those who accurately reflect the historic accomplishments of the Volunteer State and its people,” the letter states.

But in a separate statement, Ramsey says even as his prayers go out to the families and communities affected by the Charleston killings, “the effort under way to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in our state Capitol strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction.”

The lieutenant governor points out Forrest was a native Tennessean (from Chapel Hill in Middle Tennessee) and is considered one of history’s greatest military commanders.

“I cannot and do not defend every action he took throughout his life, but I couldn’t do that for any man in history aside from Christ himself,” Ramsey states.

Whether the Capitol Commission removes the bust or not, Ramsey says he’s concerned about a rapid slide “down the slippery slope of political correctness. Now more than ever it is important to keep in mind that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”

Bipartisan action

Harwell, a potential Republican gubernatorial candidate, is typically guarded and hasn’t taken a stand on the matter.

McCormick made it clear where he stands, stating in a letter he believes Forrest’s bust needs to be removed from the Capitol and given to the Tennessee Historical Commission to be placed in a Civil War display, mainly because his background as a slave trader and affiliation with the KKK “overshadow” other contributions.

State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from rural Ripley in West Tennessee who leads the House Minority Caucus, agrees. And Senate Democratic leaders backed Haslam’s efforts to remove Forrest.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, of Memphis, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, of Nashville, sent a letter to Ramsey and Harwell asking them to petition the Capitol Commission to remove Forrest’s bust.

“Gov. Haslam has shown strong leadership this week in calling for the bust’s removal following the tragedy in Charleston,” says Harris. “We should seize this moment of national reflection and unity to remove divisive symbols from our state Capitol.”

Because the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013 prohibits removing or altering any monument or memorial dedicated in honor of the Civil War and other wars, anyone with control over a piece of public property must petition the Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver, according to a release by the Senate leaders.

“Only those that represent the very best of Tennessee should be afforded such recognition in the halls of the state government,” says Yarbro. “We can’t and shouldn’t sanitize our history, but we do have a choice about which individuals we honor and elevate as models to school groups touring the Capitol.

Harris, a member of the Black Caucus, which also supports moving the Forrest bust, sponsored a 2013 Memphis City Council resolution to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. It became Health Sciences Park before Senate Republicans were able to pass the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which was sponsored in the Senate by Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, and in the House by Rep. McDaniel.

Political jousting

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes and Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini both back the bust removal, though Haynes threw some barbs over the Democrats’ initial move because it contained party fundraising information.

Meanwhile, former House member Joe Carr, a Lascassas Republican with Tea Party leanings who challenged Sen. Lamar Alexander in the 2014 election, accused Haslam, Haynes, McCormick and Mancini of “trying to jump to the front of the political correctness line,” calling them hypocritical, at best.

Carr points out Haslam just signed legislation a few years ago allowing the Confederate flag to run on specialty license plates.

If the Legislature wants to decide whether people such as Forrest should be honored in the Capitol, Carr says, then it needs to talk about Andrew Jackson, who had 150 slaves at his death and ordered the Trail of Tears, a tragedy for Native Americans.

“It’s more than ironic. It’s despicable,” Carr says, adding this situation grows out of the point First Lady Michelle Obama made several years ago, saying her husband, President Barack Obama, was going to change the nation’s discussion and remake its traditions and history.

Mancini contends Carr doesn’t know his history very well and points out the symbols being discussed are “symbols of treason” and secession from the Union, something Andrew Jackson opposed.

“There’s a huge difference. Nobody’s wrapping themselves in a $20 bill right now and claiming superiority,” she says. “And that’s what the symbols of the Confederate flag and Nathan Bedford Forrest represent.

“They [are] symbols that you can use as modern-day symbols of hate and divisiveness and superiority of the white race over all others. So again no one’s wrapping themselves and using a $20 bill and waving that when they’re going into a Bible study and murdering innocent people.”

Republicans such as Carr who want to stand behind those symbols don’t care about representing all of Tennessee, which she says is becoming more “diverse” all the time.

As for Ramsey’s contention this is a “knee-jerk reaction,” Mancini scoffs at that idea, saying, “It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. This has been bubbling under for decades, and this was just the last straw.”

Mancini further argues this should be part of a larger conversation. Tennessee can take Forrest’s bust out of the Capitol. It can remove Forrest’s name from the ROTC hall at MTSU.

“But when are we going to talk about removing barriers to voting for people of color?” such as the voter photo ID law, she asks. When will the nation discuss the large number of black Americans in prison or jobs “for people of color” or equal education.

MTSU’s hall

MTSU President Sidney McPhee is reviving a decades-old university discussion over the name of Forrest Hall.

“Debate about the name of Forrest Hall has surfaced periodically through the years,” McPhee says in a recent statement. “In light of the horrific killings in Charleston, and the national discussion that has ensued in the aftermath, it is right and appropriate to revisit this matter with the university community, our alumni and supporters, and state officials who by law must approve any change.”

Forrest Hall was built in 1954 to house the ROTC program but wasn’t dedicated until 1958 when the name Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall became official. It was chosen because of Forrest’s notoriety as a military tactical genius for the Confederate Army and his ties to Middle Tennessee where he was born in the Chapel Hill community.

In 1989, the university removed a 600-pound bronze medallion of Forrest from Keathley University Center.

Opposition to the link to Forrest heightened in 2006-07 when students petitioned the university to remove his name from the ROTC hall because of his ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

The university held a series of public forums on the matter, as some people supported keeping the name. Ultimately, MTSU kept the name when the Student Government Association rescinded a request to change the name and black student groups told university leaders they didn’t consider it a priority.

Derek Frisby, an MTSU professor in Global Studies and Geography who teaches on the Civil War and Forrest, says Forrest’s affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan “tarnishes” his reputation as an expert in guerilla warfare.

Details surrounding Forrest’s connection to the KKK are “murky,” according to Frisby. But he says there is no question the Klan came about to discourage black Tennesseans from voting.

He also notes Forrest’s war tactics were studied decades later in Vietnam, but he says the Confederate lieutenant general wasn’t suited for army command because he didn’t know the logistical nature of warfare.

Frisby also is uncertain whether Forrest was sincere in rebuking the KKK when he was questioned by a congressional committee about violence in Tennessee during Reconstruction.

Forrest’s connection with the university wasn’t very strong until the early 1950s when MTSU used his image and name to connect with the community after World War II, Frisby says.

The school band played “Dixie” as the university’s song, and Confederate flags and hats were sold at ballgames to raise money for various campus organizations, according to Frisby. A student dressed as Forrest rode horseback on the sidelines of MTSU football games, as well as in parades and other university events.

Most of those connections to Forrest were eliminated except the ROTC hall’s name and a large emblem after a campus “discussion” on the matter in 1968, according to Frisby.

“We probably are at a point where we can talk about it,” Frisby says. “Do we have less controversial, more positive influences in the last 100 or so years of our university that we could name the ROTC building after? Absolutely.”

Rutherford County, where MTSU is located, voted overwhelmingly to secede in 1861.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com

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