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Fact Check: Was Nathan Bedford Forrest A Civil Rights Leader? Not Exactly

Posted at 3:04 PM, Jul 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:17:10-04

Tennessee state Rep. Andy Holt recently wrote a blog post and newspaper column in which he described Nathan Bedford Forrest as "one of the South's first civil rights leaders" - a notion that has also been pushed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Looking at Forrest's background, it's undisputed that Forrest had been a wealthy slave owner and slave trader. A Memphis City Directory ad from the mid-1850s for his company, Forrest & Maples, lists "Negroes Sold On Commission," promising "the highest market price always paid on good stock." (View ad here.)

In an 1869 newspaper interview with a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal, Forrest also disclosed a financial interest in the Wanderer, the so-called "last American slave ship" that brought some 400 enslaved Africans to the U.S. in 1858, decades after the U.S. had outlawed the importation of slaves. (Read article here.)

But after the end of the Civil War, Forrest recognized that, if his own businesses and the Southern economy were to thrive without forced labor, a new approach would be needed.

In other words, says historian Brian Steel Wills, he was a pragmatist.

"He wasn't trying to lead a civil rights movement," Wills said in a telephone interview with NewsChannel 5. "He was trying to figure out how to get his world back into some semblance of order and control."

In fact, in an 1868 interview with the Cincinnati Commercial, Forrest was asked specifically about his opinion about suffrage for African-American men.

"I am opposed to it under any and all circumstances, and in our convention urged our party not to commit themselves at all on the subject," he responded. But the right to vote had been taken from the Confederates. With that in mind, Forrest added, "If the negroes vote to enfranchise us I do not think I would favor their disenfranchisement. We will stand by those who help us. And here I want you to understand distinctly, I am not an enemy to the negro. We want him here among us. He is the only laboring class we have." (Read article here.)

The next year, in the interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Forrest was asked how the South would be repopulated. "With Negroes," he answered. "They are the best laborers we have ever had in the South. Those among us during the war behaved in such a manner that I shall always respect them for it, and I would not have one of mine back, nor have them enslaved if I could."

So where would those workers be found?

Forrest suggested that the slave ships could be sent back across the Atlantic in search of Africans to work the fields of the South. They are "the most imitative creatures in the world, and if you put them in squads of ten, with one experienced leader in each squad, they soon will revive our country." He explained that "the prisoners taken in war over there can all be turned over to us and emigrate and be freemen here." (Read article here.)

Defenders of the notion of a reformed Confederate general who renounced the Ku Klux Klan and favored equal rights often point to statements that he made when called before a congressional committee in 1871. He claimed to have supported the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Yet, in that same testimony, Forrest suggested that part of the reason for the formation of vigilante groups in the South was the fact that the former slaves had become "insolent" -- in other words, rude and disrespectful. (Read Forrest's testimony here.)

"There were a great many northern men coming down there, forming leagues all over the country. The negroes were holding night meetings, were going about, were becoming very insolent," the former slave owner and slave trader testified. (page 6) Forrest later added, "During the war, our servants remained with us, and behaved very well. When the war was over our servants began to mix with the republicans, and they broke off from the Southern people, and were sulky and insolent." (page 24) And he expressed contempt for Republican "carpet-baggers" who "go around with the negroes, and board and sleep with the negroes." (page 25)

Then, in 1876, Forrest was invited to speak at Fourth of July festivities sponsored by a "semi-military" African-American group, the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers. As reported by the Memphis Daily Appeal, Forrest delivered the following speech:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states.... I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don't propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office.... I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.... Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."

Contrary to some claims, Forrest was not the only white man invited that day to speak, according to the newspaper account. He was joined by other former Confederates and prominent Democrats.

One of them, Confederate Gen. Gideon Pillow, followed Forrest, echoing the sentiment that the black and white races were "on the same footing" and that the African-Americans should vote for "honest and capable men."

But Pillow was much more explicit about what he meant.

"You were misled at the end of the war by bad men of the Republican party," Pillow continued. "If you had not put yourself in the hands of the enemies of southern white people, but had placed your confidence in them and had cooperated with them in necessary reforms in the policy of State government, they would have been your allies and would have adopted such forms of legislation as would have greatly advanced your interests."

"My advice would be to discard all partisan views, to disband all colored political organizations. It was these colored political organizations -- in hostility to the white race of the south -- that produced the color-line of the white race of the south."

Pillow urged them to stay in the South and farm the land, telling them that it was their "fate" and warning against the idea of moving north.

"You were born and raised in the South," Pillow continued, as Forrest looked on. "Your constitutions are suited to the mild and genial climate of the south. The native climate of your race was in the tropical region of Africa.... The cold climate and long winters of the north you will not bear. But your race can live and prosper in the States of the south."

"Without this land to cultivate you could not live. There is therefore a dependence between the races -- the one on the other -- which make the prosperity of either impossible without the well-being of the other. If you cease your hostility to the white race of the south, and fall into the general policy and intents of the south, and identify yourself in interest with them, and vote for none but honest and capable men for office, we would correct the abuses which have crept into every department of business. The wisest statesmanship would adopt measures which would in the end enable you to get homes of your own, and land to cultivate." (Read article here.)

More on the controversy:

Disagree? Put your comments below, citing original sources from that time period.