Here in Memphis, our city leaders decided to change the names of three parks named in memory of the Confederate States of America. Therefore, on February 5 at the last City Council meeting, the City Council named Confederate Park “Memphis Park,” Jefferson Davis Park, “Mississippi River Park” and the most controversial of all, Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, “Health Sciences Park.” Now, anyone who has been in the South and have seen all of the monuments named for people who committed high treason against the United States of America, know that this caused some major controversy. So much so that one of our city leaders attempted to find a middle ground by renaming the park Nathan Bedford Forrest-Ida B. Wells.
Well, first, I am glad that our city leaders did not name the park using any combination of the names of Ida B Wells and Nathan Bedford Forrest. To associate Ida B. Wells’ name with Nathan Bedford Forrest would have been wrong. It would hurt the "legacy" of both by improving one and damaging the other. Moreover, I could not see the supporters of Wells or Forrest wanting any part of that. Therefore, I am glad of that decision.
Moreover, I would like to say that our city leaders came to the decision to rename the parks on their own. However, as we soon discovered during this vote, state legislators force Memphis City leaders hands to move hastily with this vote. Afraid that two Nashville legislators would have removed the city's ability to rename parks, city leaders acted quickly in renaming the parks. This of course led to members of the Klu Klux Klan (yeah, they still around) to dust off their white sheets and in full regalia, offer interviews on our local news programs on how they plan to protest this “injustice.” They also issued a warning that while they plan to protest peacefully, they will check our laws on concealed weapons permits, because “most of our members have concealed weapons permits.”
|Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue in Memphis, Tennessee|
Nevertheless, to the much larger issue—the statue of Forrest regardless of what we name or call the park. For me, this issue has always been simple. When the Park Commission and other city leaders unveiled the statue in 1905, the people of the city and indeed, many people of the South, thought that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the epitome of what it meant to be an individual worth honoring. Then, even the Commercial Appeal ran an editorial that celebrated Forrest as a "military genius" and further gushed, "Memphis at last can point with genuine pride to this enduring recognition of the achievements of one of her greatest citizens."
I am sure that the 18-30,000 people who came to celebrate the unveiling of the statue were pleased and told their children that this was someone you should hope to become. I am sure that the city honored Forrest because at the time, Memphians saw him as someone to be proud of and someone who was worthy of honor. The question city leaders need to ask themselves is "Can Memphis now point with "genuine pride" the achievements of one of her "greatest citizens" in one Nathan Bedford Forrest?" In short, "Is Forrest worth celebrating and honoring in 2013 as he apparently was in 1905?
It would be nice if our religious community could provide leadership on this issue. However, we cannot, because as I have continued to argue, this issue, as with many issues boils down to race and religious institutions do not do race well. The fact of the matter is that theologians did not see race as a theological issue for most of our history. In other words, the way that we handled, discussed, and constructed race was not seen as sinful at all. It was seen by many as honorable to enslave people, segregation was God inspired, and many lauded sermons that supported Jim and Jane Crow. There was no shame because somehow you could treat other humans badly and still be in good relationship with God—with a blessing many times from your religious leader. This is how we have a Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue in the first place.
Therefore, for this and other issues involving race, our religious institutions need to take race more seriously than we currently do. This will only happen if our collective ways in which we engage in God-Talk places emphasis on racism as a theological and religious problem. To address race theologically will force us to talk openly about the pain and horror of racism and to bring it up when it (still) occurs. Only when we can address race theologically can we as leaders of religious institutions come together and ask the question again, "Is Nathan Bedford Forrest worth celebrating today as he was in 1905?" This time however, in call and response tradition, not only when African American and other progressive minded religious institutions ask, "Is Nathan Bedford Forrest worth celebrating today as he was in 1905?"-all other religious institutions would respond by saying "no."