One of the most hideous, outrageous, and storied Confederate statues in the nation came crashing down in Tennessee at the end of last year, marking a new chapter in the ongoing reevaluation of the history of slavery and the Civil War.
It was a long, long time coming.
The rearing equestrian statue a few miles south of Nashville was perhaps ugliest for the man it lionized — Nathan Bedford Forrest, millionaire antebellum slave trader, Confederate general and war criminal, and first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan. But it was also hideously ugly from an aesthetic point of view — what one writer justly described as “our nation’s ugliest Confederate statue.” At 27 feet tall and built of polyurethane coated with supposedly graffiti-proof paint, it appeared to have been crafted by a cross between a demented adolescent, a lover of brutalist Hitlerian sculpture, and an unhinged cartoonist on a bad LSD trip.
The monument stood on a knoll just off Interstate 65, at the hub of a double ring of 13 Confederate battle flags and 13 Confederate state flags, an enduring embarrassment at the gateway of a city that sees itself as part of the New South. Its final demise was the culmination of countless efforts to remove it, destroy it, hide it behind a screen of vegetation, or simply cover it in mocking graffiti.
But first, some people had to die.
First to go was Jack Kershaw, a bizarre character who was a lifelong segregationist described in his Tennessean obituary as a “gold plated eccentric.” Kershaw, a lawyer, conspiracy theorist, pro football quarterback in the 1930s, racist activist, and purported “artist,” died in Nashville in 2010 at the age of 96. He was the creator of the statue, taking 18 months to sculpt it and reportedly using a butcher’s knife to shape it and then painting the horse gold and Forrest silver. With the help of money donated by racist groups, he finished it in 1998.
Kershaw was indeed eccentric, but he was also a committed white supremacist. He was a highly active member of the Nashville White Citizens Council — one of the groups later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the uptown Klan” — as well as a founder of the notoriously segregationist Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, and, later, a co-founder and board director of the League of the South, a racist hate group that still functions today. “Someone needs to say a good word for slavery,” Kershaw once told a reporter. “Where in the world are Negroes better off than in America?”
That wasn’t all. Kershaw also was at one point the lawyer for James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Although Ray’s first lawyer saved him from an automatic death penalty by arranging a plea bargain that included a 99-year sentence, under Kershaw’s advice Ray recanted his confession and instead blamed the murder on a nonexistent character named “Raul.”
Kershaw said that Ray had indeed bought the rifle that killed King, but merely as part of a gun smuggling ring led by Raul. It was Raul, a man whose last name he said he didn’t know, who pulled the trigger. Kershaw even told reporters that he had a photo of Raul that he would show them down the line — but he never did, and all his efforts to convince the courts, congressional investigators and others came to naught. Kershaw was representing Ray when he escaped from prison in 1977 with four other inmates but was recaptured three days later. He then convinced Ray to grant a Playboy interview, as part of which he would take a lie detector test. Unfortunately for Ray, the test showed that his recantation was false.
Ray wasn’t happy about that, but he didn’t fire Kershaw until he discovered his lawyer had snagged an $11,000 payment from Playboy for the interview, none of which went to Ray. Bizarrely enough, Ray hired as a replacement lawyer Mark Lane, a wild-eyed John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist. Lane, who was Jewish, was also known for representing Liberty Lobby, a once-leading anti-Semitic group, and, later, its leader, Willis Carto, in an ultimately failed battle to reinstall Carto as head of a Holocaust denial organization he had founded.
Kershaw — whose other well-known sculpture was a weird rendering of Joan of Arc “in the flames” — died in 2010. But that wasn’t the end of the saga. The Forrest monstrosity was erected on a 3.5-acre parcel of land owned by local businessman Bill Dorris, another area racist, and Kershaw left it to Dorris. (He also left $5 million that he didn’t actually have for his pet border collie Lulu.) Over the years, Dorris fended off attempt after attempt to bring the statue down.
It wasn’t that he loved the art. “As an artist, mediocre,” Dorris said of his longtime friend. But, he added, “As a thinker, he was way ahead of his time.”
At one point, Nashville city leaders tried to get the state Department of Transportation to plant trees to shield the statue from interstate passersby. Dorris in turn threatened to raise it on stilts and move the flags to 100-foot flagpoles — a plan that turned out to be unnecessary because the state refused to add vegetation. Later, one vandal splashed the statue with pink paint, while a second took up the task by spray painting the word “Monster” on the rearing horse’s flank. Someone tried unsuccessfully to pull the whole thing down with a rope. Someone else put up a banner next to it — “Trump 2016, Make AMERIKKKA Great Again.”
Dorris battled them all, denying he was a racist as he did. “Now, if I’m a racist, why do I have so many blacks working for me?” he asked one local radio reporter. To another, he described slavery as “the first form of Social Security.” Black people, Dorris added, “never had it so good as far as job security.”
Finally, in November 2020, Bill Dorris died as well. But Dorris had planned for this, too, leaving the statue and the land under it to a local nonprofit group.
But The Battle of Nashville Trust, which works to preserve landmarks of the 1864 Battle of Nashville, knew nothing of the bequest — and wanted nothing to do with it. In a statement, the group said Forrest had not participated in the Civil War battle; that “the statue is ugly and a blight on Nashville”; that it had been “vandalized, is in disrepair, and is dangerous”; and that maintaining the Forrest statue “would be and has been divisive in the city we all cherish.”
And so the Dorris will’s executor decided to end it all.
When the cranes arrived to do the deed on Dec. 7 2021, the 23-year-old Kershaw masterwork didn’t fare too well. The horse’s head broke off. Parts of Forrest were broken or dismembered. Various plans to store the thing and perhaps give it away, or sell it, seemed to go the way Forrest himself had gone — into oblivion.
“This has been a national embarrassment,” state Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville), a longtime Forrest foe, told The Tennessean. “I’m so excited. This is great news. It’s just so hurtful to people, not to mention heinously ugly.”
This was only the latest insult to General Forrest.
In Georgia, a bust of Forrest was removed from a cemetery in Rome. In Tennessee, which only a few years ago had 31 Forrest memorials, the last Nathan Bedford Forrest Day was celebrated in 2019. In July 2021, after a long controversy, a bust of the cavalry general was removed from the Tennessee state Capitol. And in September of last year, Middle Tennessee State officials said that they planned to strip Forrest’s name from a building on its campus in Murfreesboro.
And then there is the general himself. In Memphis, a bronze equestrian statue of Forrest was removed from a city park in 2017. The city got around a state law prohibiting the removal of such memorials without permission by deeding the park to a local nonprofit group, which put the statue in storage. But underneath the plaza just in front of the statue lay the mortal remains of Forrest and his wife.
But that, too, was finally resolved.
In June, what was left of the Forrests’ bodies was disinterred and taken away by a local funeral director — a man who understood that those remains might attract anti-racist demonstrators to protest wherever they were stored.
So the director had his employees put the remains in two vehicles and drive off in different directions. Only after 40 minutes did he call his workers and direct them to a funeral home in Munford, where they were secretly stored in a room with newly changed locks. Then he had them reburied them in a local cemetery while awaiting a decision from the Forrest family about where they would be reinterred permanently. Finally, he got word that all concerned had agreed that they would be reburied at the Sons of Confederate Veterans headquarters in Columbia.
The funeral workers had been asked to stop by Chapel Hill, Forrest’s boyhood home, for a public ceremony on the way to Columbia. But that, too, was derailed when the FBI called to warn that they had word of a credible threat and asked that the Forrests be delivered straight to Columbia, according to the funeral director. The director also told reporters that he learned something else from the FBI — that they had agents at several recent Forrest events with facial recognition devices they were using to try to identify people who had joined the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol by Trump enthusiasts. Apparently, agents believed that it was likely that Forrest admirers might also be insurrectionists.
At last, last September, the pair were reburied in Columbia.
For once, as the entire Nathan Bedford Forrest saga demonstrates, the Lost Cause finally had actually lost something — a sign that the elevation of a violent and incredibly vicious racist to hero status may actually be coming to an end.
Mark Potok is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a freelance writer, speaker, consultant, expert on right-wing extremism. See full profile here.
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