Should Tennessee recognize Nathan Bedford Forrest Day?

Brandon Paykamian • Jul 16, 2019 at 8:00 PM

Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation last week declaring July 13 Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, in honor of the Confederate general who was a prominent slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Since then, he’s had second thoughts.

According to Tennessee state law, the governor has to issue proclamations for six separate days of special observation — three of which honor Confederate leaders, including Forrest.

Democratic legislators have unsuccessfully tried to change the law in the past, but Lee said Tuesday he’d like to see the law changed. Lee, who was criticized earlier this year for an Auburn University photograph of him wearing a Confederate uniform, said Forrest’s legacy is part of a dark chapter in Tennessee history, which he described as “deep, rich, beautiful” and “complicated.”

“The law required me to sign the law, so we complied with the law. Of course, it’s the governor’s obligation, but I didn’t like it,” Lee said during a visit to Unicoi Tuesday. “And Nathan Bedford Forrest has a part of his history that’s very painful for Tennesseans, so that’s why we decided to pursue changing the law of that proclamation.”

Washington County NAACP Vice President Jean Neal said the proclamation could embolden the KKK and other hate groups who are still active by giving legitimacy to their cause. Neal said legislators should change the law, which has recently been nationally condemned by racial justice activists and even conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“I don’t think there is anything he should be honored for,” Neal said. “I think that just fuels it. This gives them more leeway to do what they’ve done and what they’ve always stood for.”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said he understands the governor’s thoughts on the matter but didn’t specifically say whether he thought the law should be changed in today’s political climate.

“We have a very rich and diverse history, some of which we are very proud of and some of which we are not. It is, however, that history that has moved us forward as the great nation and state that we are today. Our history cannot be changed and must be accurately displayed and preserved such that our youth may learn and move forward — not making the same mistakes some have made in the past,” he said Tuesday. “As such, at this point, I support our governor in that we cannot hide from our past and must learn from it, but should not have to celebrate parts of it either.”

Johnson City Press also reached out to Republican state Reps. Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss, both of Jonesborough. Neither could be reached for comment after multiple attempts to contact them Monday and Tuesday.

In addition to Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, June 3 is Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The governor is also required to proclaim Jan. 19 as Robert E. Lee Day to honor the Confederate Army general.

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