By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
History is full of irony, and one of the most fascinating stories I’ve found recently has to do with two towns in the South, and events which occurred almost exactly a hundred years apart.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was typical of a lot of young Southern men, poor and uneducated. Yet by the time of the Civil War he had become wealthy by Tennessee standards. Much of his money came as a result of enterprises involving slavery, which undoubtedly made him view the Union as a threat to his way of living, as well as waging an illegal ‘war of Northern aggression.’
Forrest personally recruited a unit of cavalry soldiers, financed with his own money, and became a lieutenant colonel. His first encounter was at the fall of Fort Donelson in western Tennessee, and he later became known for his aggressive, sometimes reckless approach. His involvement at Chickamauga led to his promotion to major general. He was shot three times during battles, and once by one of his own men, but that’s another story.
The future ironies were set up when his last campaign led to his defeat at Selma, Alabama in April of 1865, and his ultimate surrender at Meridian, Miss., on May 9, 1865.
After the war, Forrest returned to Tennessee and readily accepted leadership in the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. For him, as well as many other veterans in the South, their resistance was against a continuation of what was now the ‘war of Northern occupation.’
During Reconstruction, a number of factors combined to exacerbate those feelings: a Republican governor who’d served as a Union officer and was viewed as vengeful; Northern carpetbaggers coming down were running their economies, and new rights including voting were being given to former slaves. Of these, the easiest for the Klan to terrorize were the blacks.
Fast-forward to the years following World War II. Minority soldiers returning to a nation still segregated contributed to a renewed demand for equal rights. Meridian, Miss., was a central location chosen during the 1960s as headquarters for volunteers working to increase voter registration. Three young men who’d been trying to make it back to Meridian after registering voters were murdered and buried under an earthen dam.
At the time, many police were members of the Klan; the FBI opened an investigation, and the nation’s consciousness became focused on violence in the South.
Fast-forward again, and two years later marchers planning to walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama were attacked on a bridge coming out of Selma. Television cameras rolled as unarmed marchers were beaten, tear-gassed, and seventeen sent to the hospital with injuries. The event which became known as Bloody Sunday spotlighted nonviolent efforts of leaders such as Martin Luther King.
In reading about all this, two ironies occurred to me. Black Americans who’d been targeted and victimized by violence following the Civil War suffered the same thing when twentieth-century whites became frustrated with government interference. They were finally able to overcome at Selma and Meridian – where the Klan, racism and violence were exposed, and where its founder had experienced defeat and surrender a century before.
The second irony is that nonviolence as a method was learned by blacks early in our nation’s history, either as part of their culture or a survival tactic.
Martin Luther King embraced it as a religious philosophy, part of his Christian faith, and inspired millions to follow his lead. Then when the lens of twentieth-century media turned on peaceful people being brutalized, the nation as a whole sided with their cause.