OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 13, 2007
by Darin McMahon
A post a while back on the sadly unreconstructed nature of Florida's official state anthem prompted several people to draw my attention to similar atavisms in the sunshine state. Call me a carpetbagger, but I find it hard to fathom how Jacksonville's Nathan Bedford Forrest High has survived the cultural politics of the last 20 years with its name intact. Those without a close interest in Civil War military history may remember the Confederate cavalry commander primarily as the namesake of Tom Hank's character in the movie Forrest Gump. As Gump explains, "What he did was, he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They'd all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They'd even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that's how I got my name. Forrest Gump."
But don't take Gump's word for it. Although historians debate the precise nature of the real Forrest's contribution to the Klan--he may well have been its first Grand Wizard, though records, naturally, are scarce--few deny his central formative role. A self-made businessman and ante-bellum slave trader in Tennessee, Forest entered the war as a private and left as a general with a reputation for battlefield daring. He was thus a figure of considerable importance in post-war Tennessee and he used his influence to fight Reconstruction at every turn. As the website of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society puts it in awful display of coded double-speak, "Forrest was Memphis's first White Civil Rights Advocate."
Based on Forrest's much over-rated military reputation, Tennessee has a state park named in his honor and a public statue of the native son as well. But how Florida can tolerate a public school in his name is baffling. The attribution is all the more galling giving that the student body of Nathan Bedford Forrest High is 45 percent African American.
Tom Hank's character says, a propos of his name, that "Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don't make no sense."
Perhaps the name does serve to remind Florida students of the senselessness and brutality of certain aspects of the Southern past. But surely the New South can find better ways to recall its history than this.