Look forward, not to the past

Look forward, not to the past

February 16th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The emotional baggage of the Civil War and its aftermath remains a potent source of conflict. Even as the nation becomes more inclusive and less regional, radical apologists of the Lost Cause continue their starry-eyed campaigns to keep the war before the public for all the wrong reasons. The latest example of such an act comes from Mississippi, where the Sons of Confederate Veterans have proposed issuance of a specialty license plate honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The plate, if approved, would be one in a series of five issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The current plate carries an image of Beauvoir, the Biloxi, Miss., home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Other plates in the series would commemorate the Battle of Corinth, the siege of Vicksburg and Confederate soldiers. The proposed Forrest plate is the most controversial, and rightly so.

Forrest was one of the indisputable military heroes of the Confederacy, though there is much debate about his role in a massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. He also was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group known for terrorizing blacks in the South for decades after the Civil War.

He served as a grand wizard of the Klan in his native Tennessee, but left the group after less than two years because of the Klan's growing embrace of violence and intimidation to promote its aims. Even so, his affiliation with the group gave it creditability it otherwise might not have achieved.

The SCV proposal brought an immediate and mostly negative reaction around the state. The Mississippi NAACP denounced it, saying that Forrest was a "terrorist" who engaged in acts that were "immoral and unconstitutional." The organization asked Gov. Haley Barbour to denounce the proposal. So far, he's remained mum.

Other individuals and groups joined the protest, including a Facebook group called "Mississippians Against the Commemoration of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest" that quickly grew to more than 2,000 members. The group used less incendiary words than the NAACP to make its position known. Its website said it opposed "the public glorification of one of the original leaders of the Ku Klux Klan." That's a reasonable point of view. Even so, the statement is sure to stir up the SCV and like-minded groups.

Debate about the Forrest license plate is unlikely to change minds. Indeed, there are better ways than a vehicle tag to honor those who honorably served the Confederacy. If Mississippi is to prosper and provide the civic and social parity its residents deserve, state officials should look forward, not back. That, unfortunately, will be especially difficult in a state where William Faulkner, a proud native son, famously wrote, "the past is never dead; it's not even past."