African-American leaders have reacted with shock at a plan to feature an early Ku Klux Klan leader on Mississippi license plates.
The proposal by the Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) asked that the state issue a series of license plates between now and 2015 to honor the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
A 2014 plate would feature Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became an important leader of the Klan after the war.
Forrest was most known for directing a massacre of black Union soldiers who had already laid down their arms at Fort Pillow in April 1864.
“It is in connection with one of the most atrocious and cold-blooded massacres that ever disgraced civilized warfare that his name will for ever be inseparably associated,” according to an obituary published in The New York Times at his death in 1877.
“The garrison was seized with a panic: the men threw down their arms and sought safety in flight toward the river, in the neighboring ravine, behind logs, bushes, trees, and in fact everywhere where there was a chance for concealment. It was in vain. The captured fort and its vicinity became a human shambles.”
“The news of the massacre aroused the whole country to a paroxysm of horror and fury,” the Times added.
Following the war, Forrest worked to bring disparate Klan groups under a centralized authority. He was eventually elected Grand Wizard.
“Forrest probably did not object to the violence, per se, as a means of restoring the pre-war hierarchy, but as a military man, he deplored the lack of discipline and structure that defined the growing KKK,” according to a biography by PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.
“I am not an enemy of the negro,” Forrest was quoted as saying. “We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have.”
NAACP president Derrick Johnson reacted with surprise when first told about SCV plans to honor Forrest.
“Seriously?” he said. “Wow.”
A Facebook page titled “Mississippians Against The Commemoration Of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest” had 820 members at the time of publication.
“We are united in sending a message to the state government of Mississippi that WE WILL NOT STAND for the public glorification of one of the original leaders of the Ku Klux Klan,” the page said.
Robert McElvaine, director of the history department at the private Millsaps College in Jackson and a member of the Facebook group, told The Associated Press that Forrest should should not be honored due to his role in the massacre.
“The idea of celebrating such a person, whatever his accomplishments in other areas may have been, seems like a very poor idea,” he said.
Celebrating Forrest is not something that is unprecedented in the South. In 1998, a statue was erected of the Civil War leader in Nashville, Tennessee.
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