License Plates, Heritage and Fellow Mississippians

Some of my fellow Mississippian want to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with license plates honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest, born into a large, poor family was a self-made man amassing a fortune through cotton planting, land speculation and slave trading. He was one of the very few to enter the Civil War as a private and rise to the rank of General. After the war came to an end he was one of the initial leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest's obituary says of his pre-War years, "He was known to his acquaintances as a man of obscure origin and low associations, a shrewd speculator, negro trader, and duelist..."

During the Civil War, General Forrest had many noted moments including the Fort Pillow massacre of black soldiers who had laid down their guns. A letter written to his sister immediately after the massacre by Confederate soldier, Achilles Clark, provided this account:

"The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor... negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."

Klan leader Forrest had a few noted moments after the War, too. Author Andrew Ward writes, "In the spring of 1867, Forrest and his dragons launched a campaign of midnight parades; 'ghost' masquerades; and 'whipping' and even 'killing Negro voters... to scare blacks off voting and running for office.'"

This is the person the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans want to honor, remember, memorialize on license plates as part of their commemoration of the War Between the States.

This is the effort, honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest on license plates, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said he wouldn't denounce.

Speaking as a Mississippian to these fellow Mississippians I must say this is an effort I find horrific, absurd and unbecoming of the Mississippi I love.

You belittle all Mississippians by seeking to memorialize our history by elevating images and memories of anyone who articulated and carried out some of our worst moments.

General Forrest belongs in history books and museums where we learn about and from our past, where we ponder those moments we must never repeat. He doesn't belong as a person of honor in the commemoration of our heritage and history.

When debates arise over symbols and heritage and identification I am infuriated when such ideas as this license plate rears their ugly heads. We can't have one state, much less one nation, when we embrace symbols that reflect a tense and asymmetrical heritage.

It's a false heritage we seek to elevate when our symbols divide rather than include. Our energy and spirits are washed down into the gutter when we fight to uphold a heritage that seeks to alienate rather than embrace.

Yes, some of our heritage belongs in museums. We have plenty of nobility and decency to embrace and stand on, stand on together, without the insecurities and ignorance of racism elevated to places of honor.

My credentials as a Mississippian and Southerner are unimpeachable and this license plate idea from the Sons of Confederate Veterans needs to end. Governor Barbour may not be willing to denounce it but I am as are thousands of Mississippians. We all should.