If what I would call the “easy” version of historical revisionism thrives on finding and defining villains, on deciding which prominent Americans have done the most harm or been the most hypocritical or the like (the more idealized they’ve previously been, the better), the more difficult and meaningful version of such revisionism tends to define most individuals, like the nation itself, as significantly more complex and multi-sided than that. Villains, like heroes, are through this lens somewhat more the province of comic books and their kinds of narratives than history and its kinds, which feature human beings, some more inspiring and some certainly less so, struggling to live and act and work and think and write and (hopefully) evolve and grow in a complex and often highly imperfect nation and world.
But just as there are true American heroes on the inspiring end of the spectrum (many of whom I have written about in this space), so too on the other end are there figures who cannot with any accuracy be described as anything other than true national villains. And right near the top of that list I would place Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877). Forrest is best known for his instrumental role in founding and (possibly, the organization was and is very secretive) serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and certainly his significant contribution to that terrorist organization—an organization which was more responsible than any other single entity for undermining the potential gains for African Americans in the post-bellum years—might well be enough to secure the title of villain. But in each of his two main prior iterations Forrest was likewise defined by particularly ugly actions: as a slave trader in the antebellum South he designed a kind of supermarket system (the “Negro Mart”) for cataloging and trading slaves, making that barbarous practice even more efficient and successful at enacting its horrors; and as a Confederate cavalry officer during the Civil War he was best known for the Fort Pillow Massacre, where troops under Forrest’s command slaughtered hundreds of prisoners, many of them black Union soldiers. It’s fair to say, in looking back over American history, that you might never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than in Forrest's biography.
There is, I believe, significant value, both for an understanding of our history and for a parallel awareness of our contemporary world and identity, to identifying and delineating such villainous histories and figures. And while those two purposes are always present in general, they have become in regard to Forrest significantly more relevant and salient in recent weeks, as the state of Mississippi has announced plans, or at least preliminary conversations, toward creating commemorative license plates in “honor” of Forrest. Such efforts are not the first attempts to rehabilitate Forrest’s image—even the naming of the title character in the novel and then film Forrest Gump (1994) after Forrest (his ancestor) could be seen as part of that process, although in the film Forrest does at least note that the name reminds him that people can take actions that “just don’t make no sense.” But popular culture representations are one thing, and official state commemorations—especially in a state where the worst legacies of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan and everything to which both connect are so prominent and central, and concurrently a state with one of the largest African American populations (by percentage) in the nation—are quite another. Quite simply, an American government at any level honoring Forrest is not to my mind at all different from a German state doing the same for Joseph Goebbels.
Yeah, I went there; I know Godwin’s Law, but the bottom line is that slavery and the Klan represent two (distinct but interconnected) Holocausts in our history, and a figure like Forrest, someone who was at the heart of both historical horrors, should serve in our narratives and histories solely and thoroughly as a warning about the worst we can be and do to each other and ourselves. He’s as villainous as we get, perhaps my first nominee for the Hall of American Shame, and now, more than ever apparently, we need to remember him in precisely those terms. More tomorrow, on two very different literary visions of the same families and experiences at the turn of the 20th century.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) In the interests of fairness and those multiple sides, a very different take on Forrest, based on his apparent (if to my mind far too little and too late) end-of-life changes of perspective: http://www.politicususa.com/en/nathan-bedford-forrest
2) Good starting point history of the KKK: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-694
3) OPEN: Who would you nominate as a villain?
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