Mississippi license plate honoring Klan leader a good idea?

A proposal to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest is stirring up controversy in Mississippi.

William Faulkner famously wrote that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past, and that certainly seems to be the case in his native Mississippi.

The Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is proposing a specialty license plates building up to 2015, the 150th anniversary of the “War Between the States.”

In 2014, the group would honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, according to an article I read this morning.

Some may remember Forrest as the inspiration for Forrest Gump, the mentally challenged and spiritually uplifting protagonist that Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for playing in the movie bearing the character’s name.

But Forrest was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Supporters of the proposal say that Forrest distanced himself from the group at the end of his life and by the time it had started using violence on a regular basis. According to this perspective, Forrest is not only a military genius, but an example of Christian redemption.

Others hold a very different view, saying they are stunned to even have to answer the question and that they fervently oppose honoring one of the founding figures in a group responsible for so much pain, hate and destruction.

For these people, honoring Forrest is akin to saluting Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden.

The debate underscores the intersection of historical memory with current political discourse.

Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote in one of my favorite novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that the “struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

I see it slightly differently.

The struggle is not only memory against forgetting, but for what we choose to remember.

As a society, we give value to items in several ways.

We count them, as we do in the decennial census.  A number of projects I have worked on at the Reporter have pointed this out through their absence.  By not counting the number of children with incarcerated parents, for example, we are unable to tell how many there, and, from there, to determine the scope of the problem so that we can work for solutions.

Another way we show value to people, places and events is to remember them.

This memory can take the form of vacation days-here in the United States, we recently marked the 25th years of Dr. King’s birthday being a national holiday- or of naming anything from stadiums to library wings to streets.

University of Massachusetts professor of English and Judaic Studies James Young has written extensively about memorials.  In one of his books, he describes the hotly contested battle to determine Germany’s official Holocaust memorial. The arguments were so fierce precisely because the official version of history has power and states in public ways what happened.

While the Sons of Confederate Veterans do not represent state power, they are seeking to assert the importance of Forrest as someone who should be honored.

While they certainly are within their rights to do so, I disagree with the substance of the proposal.  I do not support holding up someone who helped found and lead a group that rained down terror on black people for close to a century.  While a case can be made for his redemption later in life, I find it far less convincing than that of Hugo Black or Robert Byrd, for instance.

Both were Klan members in their youth.  Both publicly expressed remorse for that membership.  And both worked in their legislative or judicial arenas to address the wrongs that people in those groups committed.

Forrest played a far more influential role in the group and took none of these actions.

In addition to showing the accuracy of Faulkner’s word, the current controversy underscores the importance we attach to who we remember and what parts of their lives we choose to emphasize.

What do you think?  What should we remember?  Why does it matter?


2 responses to “Mississippi license plate honoring Klan leader a good idea?

  1. You are generous in your title for this blog, to leave open the possibility: “a good idea?” Sure, the question may be asked. Your reasoning and evidence, however, demolish the idea. I hope the proposal is soundly defeated. This would be celebrating the wrong kind of difference maker!

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