February 22, 2011 11:34:00 AM
To the rest of the world, the idea is beyond ironic. It''s incredulous. Mississippi, 150 years almost to the day after it seceded from the union, is considering putting Nathan Bedford Forrest on a license plate.
The "Mississippi Burning" state is a laughing stock again. "Proposed Miss. license plate to honor KKK leader," one headline on the web blares. "Nathan Bedford Forrest on Mississippi license plate?" asks another -- posing a question that shouldn''t need an answer, and one that sadly, many of us would answer in the affirmative.
An unscientific Dispatch online poll found roughly half of responders thought the plate was a good idea.
We''re obviously among the half that doesn''t.
Some background on Mr. Forrest: He wasn''t just a slave owner, he built his fortune as a slave trader, buying and selling human beings as livestock.
He proved himself an able general of the Confederate army. His attack on Fort Pillow in his native Tennessee is of special note. In that effort, his army massacred hundreds of U.S. soldiers -- black and white -- after the battle had ended. A congressional inquiry found many were burned or buried alive, and black women and children were murdered as the general and his raiders romped up and down the countryside.
He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The brave general wouldn''t own up to being a member, much less a leader of the group. But history shows both were the case. The Klan, by the way, is a terrorist organization, and was founded as such. The idea that a "kinder, gentler" Klan existed is ludicrous.
Those comfortable with putting this person on a state-endorsed license plate point out that later in life, Forrest tried to wash his hands of these things. When the violent activities of the Klan came to light, he asked its members to disband. He called for racial reconciliation in speeches and letters.
Maybe this was a smokescreen. Or maybe, late in life, he was haunted by his past actions. Perhaps he came to gain a small understanding of the immeasurable death, suffering and hate caused by his own hands, and in his name.
Why haven''t so many Mississippians been able to reach the same understanding, 150 years later? Why do some want to lionize him?
Some clearly see a gallant, heroic general in Forrest, the epitome of Southern pride and a venerable icon of our noble Lost Cause.
We see someone who, in the end, was probably ashamed of himself.
We''re ashamed too.