City leaders in Memphis plan to dig up and move the body of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is currently buried in a city park.
The Memphis City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to exhume the grave of Forrest and his wife and move them from Health Sciences Park to a private cemetery. The Council also voted to remove the statue of Forrest on a horse that currently looms over the park.
While cities and states across the U.S. have removed Confederate flags and other symbols of the Confederacy from public property in the three weeks since a white gunman shot nine black people in a Charleston church, this may be the first Confederate leader disinterred. “Nathan Bedford Forrest is a symbol of bigotry and racism, and those symbols have no place on public property,” Council chairman Myron Lowery told Fusion. “What we’re doing here in Memphis is no different from what’s happening across the country.”
There’s still a ways to go before the move can be completed; approval is required from a Tennessee court and the state historic commission. Some news reports have suggested that the Forrest family also has to approve the move, but Lowery said he didn’t believe that was correct. Mayor A.C. Wharton told the Associated Press last week that he supports moving the graves and the statue.
Forrest, a Memphis native who built a huge fortune in the slave trade, made a name for himself as a successful general for the Confederacy. He became the Klan’s first “Grand Wizard” in 1968, although he left the group before the end of his life. Forrest infamously led a massacre of more than 200 union soldiers who had already surrendered at the 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow (not far from Memphis). That battle "marked one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history," according to civil war historian David J. Eicher. At the time, Forrest described the Mississippi river as “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone in Memphis supports the move. “I think it’s disgusting that people use the shooting in Charleston and use those victims to forward their own agenda and join this anti-Confederate hysteria that’s going on,” Sons of the Confederate Veterans spokesperson, Lee Millar, told WREG.
Health Sciences Park was named Forrest Park until the council changed its name two years ago (along with two other local parks formerly named Jefferson Davis and Confederate). That decision was met with protests by the Klan and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The statute has also been the site of civil war reenactments on Forrest’s birthday—July 13, next week.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has also called for the removal of a bust of Forrest in the state capitol.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.