Forrest

People

Forrest, Nathan Bedford

Nathaniel Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821-October 29, 1877) was a Confederate army general and an instrumental figure in the founding and growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest was perhaps the American Civil War's most highly regarded cavalry and partisan ranger (guerrilla leader). Forrest is regarded by many military historians as the war's most innovative and successful general. His tactics of mobile warfare are still studied by modern soldiers. Though born in Chapel Hill, Tenn., Forrest County bears his name to this day.

After the war, Forrest settled in Memphis, Tennessee, building a house on a bank of the Mississippi River. With slavery abolished, the former slave trader suffered a major financial setback. He was eventually employed by the Selma-based Marion & Memphis Railroad and became the company president. He was not as successful in the railroad industry as in war, and under his direction the company went bankrupt.

It was during this time that he became the nexus of the nascent Ku Klux Klan movement. Upon learning of the Klan and its purposes of disenfranchising blacks and reestablishing white conservative rule, Forrest remarked, "That's a good thing; that's a damn good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place." Forrest was later acclaimed at a Nashville, Tennessee, KKK convention (1867) as the first Grand Wizard, or leader-in-chief of that organization. In an 1868 newspaper interview, Forrest boasted that the Klan was a nationwide organization of 550,000 men, and that although he himself was not a member, he was "in sympathy" and would "cooperate" with them, and could himself muster 40,000 Klansmen with only five days' notice. He stated that the Klan did not see blacks as its enemy so much as "carpetbaggers" (northerners who moved to the South after the war ended) and "scalawags" (white Republican southerners). However, violence against blacks by the organization was pervasive.

Because of Forrest's prominence, the organization grew rapidly under his leadership. In addition to aiding Confederate widows and orphans of the war, many members of the new group began to use force to oppose the extension of voting rights to blacks and to resist Reconstruction era measures for ending segregation. In 1869, Forrest, disagreeing with its increasingly violent tactics, ordered the Klan to disband, stating that it was "being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace." Many of its groups in other parts of the country ignored the order and continued to function. Subsequently, Forrest distanced himself from the KKK.

Nearly ruined as the result of the failure of the Marion & Memphis Railroad in the early 1870s, Forrest spent his final days running a prison work farm on President's Island in the Mississippi River, his health in steady decline. He and his wife lived in a log cabin they had salvaged from his plantation.

On July 5, 1875, Forrest became the first white man to speak to Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a civil rights group whose members were former slaves and a precursor to the NAACP. Although his speech was short, he expressed the opinion that blacks had the right to vote for any candidates they wanted and that the role of blacks should be elevated. He ended the speech by kissing the cheek of one of the daughters of one of the Pole-Bearer members.

Forrest died in October 1877, reportedly from complications of diabetes, in Memphis and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery. In 1904 his remains were disinterred and moved to Forrest Park, a Memphis city park.

Controversy still surrounds his actions at Fort Pillow, and his reputation has been marred by his involvement in the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. His remarkably changed views on race in his latter years were quickly forgotten as Forrest became an icon for the Klan and other Southerners. Regardless, N.B. Forrest will always be regarded as a military leader of great native ability, and one who advanced the principles of wartime cavalry deployment and mobile strike capability that has remained in present warfare philosophy.

In recent years efforts have been made by some local black leaders to remove or eliminate some of Forrest's monuments, usually without success. In 2005, Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey started an effort to move the statue over Forrest's grave and rename Forrest Park. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who is black, blocked the move. Similar efforts to remove a bust of Forrest in the Tennessee House of Representatives chamber have likewise been mounted.

Forrest's great-grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, also pursued a military career, eventually attaining the rank of brigadier general in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. N.B. Forrest III was killed in action in 1943 while participating in an airborne bombing raid over Germany.

Sources:

Catton. Bruce (1971). The Civil War. American Heritage Press, New York. Library of Congress Number: 77-119671.

Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography, 1993.

Ward, Andrew. River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War. Viking Penguin: 2005.

Wills, Brian Steel (1992). A Fight from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-092445-4.

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Places

Forrest County Courthouse

The Forrest County Courthouse was a cite of contention for many Civil Rights Movement activists in Hattiesburg. Although the U.S. Constitution guaranteed American citizens the right to vote, in many areas of the South, local registrars of voters implemented procedures designed to keep African Americans from registering to vote. The right to vote was the single most important objective of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. In the early sixties, only fifty black citizens of Forrest County were registered to vote in spite of the fact that 30%of the population was black.

In addition to paying a poll tax (later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), citizens trying to register to vote had to complete a voter registration form (thereby requiring literacy as a prerequisite to voting, later declared unconstitutional) and to read and interpret a passage of the Mississippi state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Local businesswoman Victoria Jackson Gray began her civil rights activism by organizing literacy classes where she used the Mississippi voter registration form and the state constitution as textbooks.

Historian Neil McMillen notes that "Mississippi ... permitted fewer blacks to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 than had been eligible to vote for William McKinley in 1896. ... Whether field hand or college professor, domestic servant or physician, a black Mississippian could rarely meet the exacting standards of the county courthouse" ("Black Enfranchisement in Mississippi: Federal Enforcement and Black Protest in the 1960's," Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1977, 351, 354).

Beginning on Freedom Day, January 22, 1964 and continuing throughout the spring, a "perpetual picket line" of peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were church pastors flown in from all over the country by the National Council of Churches, marched in front of the Forrest County Courthouse for voting rights. Civil Rights Movement leaders came from all over the country to join with local African Americans and march peacefully with picket signs in front of the Forrest County Courthouse.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

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Events

Freedom House of Hattiesburg

In 1964, beginning with Freedom Day (January 22) and continuing through Freedom Summer, Mrs. Lenon E. Woods, the owner of the Woods Guest House at 507 and 509 Mobile Street, allowed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to use a vacant portion of this historic two-story hotel as its headquarters.

The building had been built between 1895 and 1900 as a hotel for African Americans in a racially segregated society. It was located in the heart of Mobile Street, the “main street” of Hattiesburg’s African American community a bustling center of small businesses, restaurants, and movie theaters, patronized not only by local African Americans but also by black servicemen from nearby Camp Shelby.

Dr. Howard Zinn, Boston University professor and faculty advisor to the national civil rights organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) describes in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964) the Freedom House staffed by legendary SNCC Field Secretaries Robert Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer. The house was furnished with the late 19th century marble-topped mahogany furniture of the Woods Guest House.

During Freedom Summer 1964, the Hattiesburg Freedom House was the headquarters of the Hattiesburg and Palmer’s Crossing project, the largest Freedom Summer site in the state. Under the direction of SNCC Field Secretary Sandy Leigh, over ninety volunteers and approximately 3,000 local people organized Freedom School classes for the largest number (650-675) of students in the state and voter registration instruction. Volunteers canvassed local African American neighborhoods, refurbished and furnished of two buildings to serve as community centers, and assisted visiting teams of attorneys, doctors, nurses, folksingers, and the Free Southern Theater repertory troupe.

In addition to housing COFO headquarters and a Freedom Library of books donated by Americans from all over the country, the Freedom House at 507 Mobile Street also served as the Hattiesburg headquarters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) beginning in 1964. The MFDP was an alternative grass-roots political party which registered over 80,000 black Mississippians and challenged the all-white delegation to the regular Democratic Party’s Presidential nominating convention in Atlantic City in August 1964 and later the all-white Mississippi representation to the U.S. Congress. The two challenges were led by Fannie Lou Hamer from the Delta and Victoria Jackson Gray from Hattiesburg.

The Freedom House was destroyed by fire in September of 1998.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

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Groups

Hattiesburg Ministers Union Headquarters

This building at 522 Mobile Street (the northeast corner of 6th and Mobile Streets), constructed in 1950 and still standing, housed J.C. Fairley’s Radio and TV Repair business and the Negro Masonic Lodge No. 115 (identified by the cornerstone). While the Freedom House at 507 Mobile Street housed COFO and MFDP headquarters, the building at 522 Mobile Street was the headquarters of the Hattiesburg Ministers Union, which later became part of the Delta Ministry.

Local African American ministers Rev. L.P. Ponder and Rev. J.E. Cameron helped to organize this group of pastors turned civil rights activists. Working with the National Council of Churches, the Committee of Free Southern Churchmen, and the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, the Hattiesburg Ministers Union oversaw the arrival, lodging (cots in the back room), meals, showers (Mr. Fairley rigged a temporary shower stall), and civil rights activities (voter registration canvassing and picketing the Forrest County Courthouse) of hundreds of Protestant pastors and Jewish rabbis from all over the country, especially during Spring 1964.

From 1964 to 1966, Rev. Bob Beech, a Presbyterian minister from Illinois, headed the Hattiesburg Ministers Union and then the Delta Ministry office in Hattiesburg both from his office in the Masonic Lodge building. He moved to Hattiesburg with his wife and sons. Another son was born to them while they were here.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

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Documents

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