Memphis Divided Over KKK Grand Wizard's Park
Where will the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, find his final rest? His body, as well as that of his wife, is currently buried in Memphis, TN's Forrest Park. But if potstirrers have their way, the bodies will soon be exhumed and moved to Elmwood Cemetery, while the park will be renamed. This is one of several downtown parks in Memphis that are the subject of controversy, though Forrest Park sounds fairly benign, especially compared with Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park.
Forrest's descendants think the new plan is "absolutely insane." According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, his great-great-grandson said, "You can't change history. General Forrest has been there for 100 years." Local government is of two minds, according to the newspaper. County Commissioner Walter Bailey would look "very kindly upon it," but City Counsel member Jack Sammons said "we can't rewrite history."
Prior to the Civil War, Forrest was a rich plantation owner and slave trader, who became a leading cavalryman and war hero, famous for the saying, "Get there first with the most." Forrest Gump is named after him.
Financially ruined after the war, he rebuilt his fortune, while also becoming Grand Wizard of the original KKK. The Klan was founded in 1866 as a secret society to resist "Reconstruction." He ordered it dissolved, however, in early 1869 after having doubts about its increasingly violent methods. A second, more public Klan was organized in 1915 near Stone Mountain, GA.
Originally buried in Elmwood Cemetery, he and his wife were replanted in Forest Park in 1904 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who also erected a statue of Forrest and his horse King Phillip, which was unveiled in 1905. The statue faces south, but ironically looks onto Union Avenue.
We visited last week, expecting to see batteries of reenactment squads forming human chains around the statue. Instead, we were the only people in the park, which takes up a city block, and aside from a ratty Parcourse, the park had little to recommend it except the statue. A larger Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park is located in Eva, Tennessee.
The caption on his statue reads, in part:
"Those hoof beats die not upon fame's crimson sod,
But will ring through her song and her story;
He fought like a Titan and struck like a god,
And his dust is our ashes of glory."
[Update: The proposal to move Forrest's grave and rename the Park was vetoed by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, an African-American.][08/01/2005]
- 800 Union Ave., Memphis, TN
- Downtown. I-240 exit 30 onto either Union or Madison Aves, then drive west five blocks to Forrest Park. The statue and grave are on the south side, facing Union Ave.