Thursday, August 4, 2005

Letter to the Editor

Gen. Forrest statue:

Much attention is being focused in the city of Memphis regarding the issue of whether to dismantle or remove the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a downtown park. Forrest was one of the founders of the Klu Klux Klan and an owner of one of the most successful slave auction yards in the South.

The issue focuses on not only the removal of the statue, but also renaming Confederate Park in which he is buried. A number of Memphians and others believe his image is an insult and provides a contextual reminder of the reign of terror against African-Americans and the post-slavery Republican Party.

Yet, others believe Forrest is an honorable historic figure who led white Southerners in a period of national tyranny in American history.

Much to the chagrin of Memphis leaders, waves of African-Americans have asked that the Forrest statue be removed as a dark symbol of a virulent and violent past. Not surprisingly many in the white community wish to let the statue stay. No doubt, the views of both sides of this issue are shaping up to convince lawmakers and other government officials the merits of the removal of Forrest and other such images.

There are hundreds of statues, symbols and other innate objects found in public spaces all across the South that commemorate and memorialize historic figures in our past. Among the largest group of statues represented are veterans of the Civil War, World War I and II and the Vietnam War. Collectively, these statues and monuments unite the living with the dead and are designed to raise consciousness about the contexts, events and their significance to American history.

Looking at the tour guides of towns and cities across Mississippi, for example, one finds numerous monuments, cemeteries, mansions and other symbols dedicated to the antebellum period, the Civil War and Confederate causes. These images and symbols are frozen for all time in public and private places not always viewed with the same ethical understanding and appreciation traditionally held by white Southerners. These objects represent a specific and unchangeable context in which no amount of contemporaneous interpretation can augment or wish away any of the past cultural, political or social manifestations.

Discussions regarding these statues, monuments, and other symbols such as the state flag, should not be viewed as a formidable attack on the white community, but point out the critical need for dialogue on the historical experiences of our nation.

Most of us in the South live in integrated towns and communities, but seldom use these historic symbols as the route for closing the egregious gaps of inequality and segregation that continue to weaken race relations, continuing to haunt our state and nation.

This route toward the healing process will require a cultural and political shift in thinking – the starting point being the hearts and minds of each individual. This type of shift in thinking is much like the one African-Americans require of non-African-Americans to accept and recognize, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.

Although many Southerners despised his activities during his lifetime, more have come to appreciate the value of his contributions as a historic figure in American history.

Meaningful discussions about sharing public spaces with others as a multicultural society are needed. Socially, there is a need to try and create integrated cultural communities and public spaces that can share and nurture heroes and sheroes in order to recognize, appreciate and pay homage to the values and contributions of generations past – regardless of class status or race.

African-Americans and whites alike should concentrate on recognizing heroes and those who have contributed to the wonderful and rich mosaic the country has to offer. They should give voice to the voiceless people in juxtaposed historical contexts. At the same time, display figures and symbols to try to encourage others to understanding this country’s past and future paths out of respect for a peaceful coexistence. Attention to more African-American historic figures and iconic symbols that represent the antebellum and Reconstruction eras for visitors in Memphis and other parts of the South ensure the contributions to African-American freedom and community building is recognized and understood in the context of modern societal issues.

Let the statue and monument remain. Start talking more objectively about these historic contributions and conflicts. They are, after all, symbols of the life that came before the present — but represent a path not to be repeated in the future. What is needed, perhaps, is to add other symbols and statues that can portray a balanced view.

As a state and nation, open and clear minded discussions and dialogues are needed regarding the past to build a pathway toward a broad and inclusive future. This is needed not only for Memphians, but for all those in the Mid-South who are attracted to this historic and wonderful city and region to ensure that they grow and blossom in unity, tourism and human strength.

- Sy Oliver, Ph.D.

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