Reconstructing Forrest: Race, Memory, and the Cultural Landscape of the Modern South

Thursday, January 7, 2010: 3:20 PM
Marina Ballroom Salon D (Marriott)
Court P. Carney , Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX
This paper traces the development of racialized representations of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest as African Americans began to exert a larger influence on the cultural manifestations of the Lost Cause. Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, protests against memorials dedicated to Forrest began to grow in strength. On the one hand, these protests illustrate the emerging activist voice of African Americans in the context of the democratization and increased racialization of Civil War memory. On the other hand, their activism led to a more aggressive defense of Forrest by many white supporters of the general who responded to the protests with anger and renewed devotion to their hero. My analysis of this shift in memorialization centers on a comparison of a statue erected in Forrest’s honor in Memphis in 1905 with another statue built near Nashville in 1998. The first statue was conceived during a period of city revival boosterism and stands as a monument to the confidence and composure of the time. By contrast, the image of Forrest created ninety years later appears as a giant fiberglass display complete with pistol, sword, and a massive Confederate flag. The narrative of race, of course, fails to entirely explain the move to build a much more militaristic memorial, but a study of newspaper reactions, opinion essays, and media discussions underscores the various ways in which race continually refracted the debate, however implicitly. As many white southerners became increasingly defensive of their Civil War heroes, the Civil Rights movement helped raise strong questions of what is a hero, and what is suitable for public memorialization. By examining the growth of African American protests, this paper seeks to develop a more complete view of the cultural process of the public memory of the Civil War.