A Ku Klux Klan chapter is fighting a grassroots effort to change the name of a Florida high school that honors the Confederate general who helped found the notoriously racist organization.
The father of one student at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville started a petition that’s gathered more than 157,000 signatures asking school board members to change the name of the school, which was chosen in 1959 by white civic leaders to protest court orders to integrate public schools.
“I don’t want my daughter, or any student, going to a school named under those circumstances,” said parent Omotayo Richmond, who started the petition drive. “This is a bad look for Florida — with so much racial division in our state, renaming Forrest High would be a step toward healing.”
Duval County School Board members voted 5-2 in 2008 to keep the name, but Richmond noted that none of the five members who voted with the majority currently served on the board.
All seven of the current board members received a letter last month from Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan asking them not to bow to pressure.
One board member said he at first thought the letter was a gag or a political stunt.
“When I found out it was an actual KKK organization I wanted to burn the letter and wash my hands immediately,” said board member Jason Fischer.
The group conceded that Forrest had been appointed first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and “carried out his duties as the office demanded of him,” but the letter, which was signed by someone identifying themselves as the Imperial Kaltrop, said the mainstream media never accurately reported why the organization was founded.
“Many say it was to deny the newly emancipated blacks of their rights, and I am sure that there were some men who embraced that concept, but the Klan was born primarily as a fraternity and quickly evolved into a group of vigilance to protect defenseless southerners from criminal activities perpetrated against them by Yankee carpet baggers, scalawags, and many bestial blacks and other criminal elements out for revenge or just taking part in criminal mischief,” the letter says.
The group complains that Richmond characterized Forrest as someone who “enslaved, slaughtered and disenfranchised blacks in America,” saying the black father’s comments reflected poorly on the education he would have received at the school – although Richmond says in his petition that he’d moved 12 years ago to Jacksonville from Long Island.
In addition to helping found the Ku Klux Klan and serving as its first leader, Forrest had been a plantation owner and slave trader before the Civil War, in which he enlisted in 1861 as a private but was promoted to general a year later.
Forrest was accused of leading the 1864 massacre of black Union soldiers and white Union loyalists after they had surrendered at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
Another Nathan Bedford Forrest High School operates just south of Nashille, Tenn.
The Jacksonville school’s sports teams compete under the Confederate Rebels nickname, and some students come to the high school after attending J.E.B. Stuart Middle School, named for the Confederate general, or Jefferson Davis Middle School, named for the Confederate president.
The school remained all white until 1966, when a small group of black students was allowed to enroll, and mandatory integration began under federal court order in 1971.
About 54 percent of the school current enrollment of 1,800 students is black.