When a masterful sculpture in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest (or NBF) was unveiled in 1905, Memphis News-Scimitar said it would ” cross the ages as the emblem of a model of virtue.” Today, it seems that the prophecy of the diary has proved to be accurate. In 2013, “the devil Forrest”, as Union General William T. Sherman nicknamed him, continued to roam the plains of Tennessee on his stallion, raising the same dust cloud in a city historically marked by racial tensions.
Pink granite tiles and modest bronze tombstones resembling commemorative plaques line the sculpture. General Forrest and his wife Mary Ann Montgomery are buried below. NBF’s favorite nickname, in some circles anyway, is that of “stirrup Wizard”, a nickname attributed because of its many equestrian talents, and which also recalls the highest title of the current Ku Klux Klan : the Imperial Wizard.
The last controversy surrounding this statue dates back to early February, when Memphis City Council voted unanimously to change the name of Forrest Park to “Health sciences Park” (a special commission is still working on finding a definitive name at the time we print), echoing the University of Tennessee buildings surrounding it. Two other parks in Memphis, Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, named after the president of the Confederation, were also renamed by the City Council on the grounds that they were publicly funded and recalled a period in history that could be considered “malevolent” to a majority of the city’s residents ; 63% of Memphis residents are African-American according to the 2010 census.
Shortly after the city council’s decision, a man – he describes himself as Edward the exalted cyclops-declared that his chapter of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was organizing a massive rally to protest these name changes. “We will not be twenty or thirty,” he told WMC-TV, the local subsidiary of NBC. Thousands of klansmen from all over the country are coming to Memphis. “Later in the month, the city granted them permission to gather in public on March 30, on the steps of City Hall in downtown Memphis, on Easter Eve and five days before the 45th anniversary of The Assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel.
All this tasted like déjà vu for the people of Memphis. On 17 January 1998, about 50 members of the KKK gathered in exactly the same place to defend their “legacy”, as they claimed at the time, as the Martin Luther King Day and the thirty years of his assassination approached. Although overtaken by the counter-demonstrators, the Klan had started a riot, which had led to looting and a counter-offensive by the police forces with tear gas.
A resident of Memphis, a self-proclaimed member of the Grape Street Crips, has taken seriously the threats of the Klan returning to his city. Following the announcement of the rally, 20 – year – old DaJuan Horton posted a video on YouTube in which he explained that he was organizing a consortium of gangs-including some rivals-to present a united front and express their displeasure on the day of the protest. Local and national media suddenly became interested in this event, which could lead to ultraviolet clashes.
“They’re going to show up in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was shot,” DaJuan said in the video. You’re gonna come home, seriously, just to talk, right ? No, it’s not gonna happen that way. When you get to Memphis, we’ll be gathered in front of you. There’ll be Young mobs, Crips, Bloods, GDS, Vice Lords, Goon Squad guys… I get them on the phone every day. I talk to the bigwigs, the big kahunas. I’m talking to the Bill Gates about the gang war. Come to Memphis, we’re waiting for you. Get your asses back. We have every gang you can imagine. »
Had the city council’s decision to rename the parks unleashed a potential confrontation between America’s oldest terrorist organization and a mega-alliance of the country’s most violent gangs ? Or was the Klan trying to retain some legitimacy in a region where race relations have evolved so much that the United States has elected a black president twice in a row ? I went to Memphis a week before the demonstration to meet all the parties involved.
My first mission in Memphis, an incredibly eclectic city hard hit by the economic uncertainties of recent years, was to interview the protagonists of the situation there. Both Myron Lowery and Janis Fullilove, long-time members of the city council, were responsible for the decision to rename the parks.
“Change brings controversy and that’s what happens here,” Myron told me, a 40-year-old black man with an authoritarian look and typical behavior of experienced local politicians. “A lot of people don’t want change, they want to live in the past, with their memories. And when the idea of compromise comes up, they oppose it on the grounds that “it’s history, and you can’t change history”. »
I was wondering what Myron thought of NBF, the man who, although dead for more than 130 years, continues to haunt the largest city in Tennessee from the bottom of his coffin.
“Nathan Bedford was a racist,” he told me. He was at the head of the Klan – “Yeah, but that wasn’t what it is today.” It’s still the Klan. I speak of the Klan as a terrorist organization. They’re American Taliban. »
Accustomed to controversy, Janis, Myron’s counterpart, has been arrested four times in the last five years for BAC (while sitting on the board) and told me that she had already been shot by a police officer during a walk with MLK (the bullet had pierced her wig). The day I met her, she was wearing a red-hot suit and a short platinum cut. She said that Forrest Park had been a source of tension since 1904, when the remains of NBF and his wife had been buried at the base of the statue after being exhumed from the nearby Elmhurst Cemetery. She was at the demonstration in 1998 where she was “trampled and gassed” and told me that this time she had received several death threats from anonymous people who disapproved of the council’s decision to rename the parks. I asked her if she was ready to take responsibility for that decision.
“Yes, I take responsibility,” Janis told me. Even if I get death threats. “We’re gonna get you, nigger.”Very good. I don’t know if it was the Klan, but it was somebody… okay, so what ? Hang me. »
My next question referred to the accusations of Klan members and other Confederate history buffs : was the Memphis City Council – made up of six whites and seven blacks – trying to erase the city’s controversial past ?
“The bottom line is that these parks will not get their original name back. That’s gonna change. Nathan Bedford Forrest is their hero ? Very well. Tell them to take her statue and stick it in their backyard. »
Earlier that day, I had met Lee Millar, spokesman for the Memphis chapter of the children of Confederate Veterans (VCs), whose gray beard evoked a mythological image of the 19th century in the United States. Last year, Lee and members of the VCS raised funds to erect a huge stone engraved with the words FORREST PARK on the edge of the park, facing the street. He showed me several e-mails sent by the green spaces Department, which seemed to approve the location. But a few weeks later, a city services team removed the stone in the middle of the night and stored it in a municipal garage, not far from the zoo. According to Lee, no one was notified. He also added that he felt that all of this was damaging Memphis’s history.
“It’s silly,” he said. Look at the Jews in Germany, they keep pieces of camp to remember. This Is The Story of Memphis and America, and history should not be erased. We should take an interest in it and not get rid of it ; we need to know our past in order to move forward. »
Lee added that the KKK’s reliance on the event for personal gain frustrated him: “I have the impression that the Ku Klux Klan capitalized on this controversy to stage a protest in Memphis and to pull the cover. “An hour later, Lee and I were going to see what, a month earlier, was still called Forrest Park. The statue of NBF reigned on his estate, watching us as if we were about to lead his garrison to the front. The artist behind the statue, Charles Henry Niehaus, was at the top of his art. This American sculptor, faithful to the neoclassical formation he had received in Germany, is known for his representations of the American president James A. Garfield, Moses, Louis IX and other statues of historical figures meticulously executed throughout the 19th century – now scattered throughout the United States. His representation of NBF is without doubt his most controversial work, but compared to the rest of his production, Charles did only his work : NBF looks ruthless and determined.
Lee introduced me to a man sitting in front of the NBF statue with a cigar in his mouth. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat, he opened with his white glove a jacket half-covered with an authentic General of the Union uniform. He introduced himself as general Ulysses S. Grant ; indeed, the resemblance was striking. I asked the good general for his opinion of NBF, his eternal rival. “I have the deepest respect for Nathan Bedford Forrest,” he replied with the typical scansion of Southern gentlemen.
Later, when I asked him about the council’s decision to change the name of the park – a decision he was opposed to – he stepped out of his character and introduced himself again, this time as E. C. Fields. Principal of a local high school, reservist policeman, member of the VCs and director of historical re-enactments, E. C. is the typical example of the well-educated man who seemed to have no other reason to take offence at the change of the park’s name, except by virtue of his love of history.
Feeling that reality was eluding me, I went straight to the point and asked E. C. If he thought NBF was racist.
“No,” he replied in a dragging voice. He had the culture of his country at that time. He had no grievance against any particular group of people; he fought for what he believed in. »
But what exactly did NBF believe in ? That’s what I was wondering, but I thought it was pointless to ask a man who loved history and the Civil War so much. Yet this was the crux of the matter ; the obscure ethics of a man who will remain in the annals for having systematically divided.
Later, as I read through the few books devoted to NBF, I may have found my answer. In the preface to the 1989 edition of the NBF biography reference, written by John Allan Wyeth, Albert Castel, professor of history at the University of Western Michigan, wrote : “Despite the rhetoric of Southern politicians and editors about ‘state rights’ and ‘Southern nationalism’, [NBF] had no illusions about the real aims [of the civil war]: “if we don’t fight to preserve slavery, what the hell are we fighting for ?” »
After his death – related to diabetes-in October 1877, NBF was buried in Elmhurst Cemetery, as he wished. The exhumation of his body and his transfer to Forrest Park by Confederate sympathizers twenty-five years later still raises questions. It is already difficult to remove the statue (Mrs. Fullilove explained to me that a court order would be necessary) but the body of NBF also confers a macabre element to the problem, which the politicians have largely avoided to consider.
NBF’s tomb is not far from the man he was : it is stubborn and resolute. Born in poverty on July 13, 1821 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, NBF is the most unlikely hero. The eldest of seven brothers and three sisters, he became the head of the household at the age of 16, after the death of his father, a blacksmith. Illiterate all his life, NBF amassed a considerable fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader. After the war was declared, he enlisted in the confederate army despite his lack of military training. Yet he was an innate tactician and courageous man; he quickly rose through the ranks. When he was appointed lieutenant General, NBF had already recruited a loyal and numerous force from the Far South.
NBF’s greatest contribution to humanity is probably in its combat strategies, some of which served as the basis for US military techniques a hundred years later. Tennessee writer and poet Andrew Lytle once described NBF as a “spiritual comforter” because of the mythical status he achieved in the decades after the Civil War. Maybe that’S why NBF was named first chief of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 19th century.
My first contact with Edward, the imposing and mysterious Exalted Cyclops (the title given to the leaders of the ” Klaverns “, the local chapters) at the origin of the gathering and which I had seen on Memphis TV hidden under a hood, had taken place three weeks before my arrival in the city. I had dialed the number of a “Klan hotline” found on the website of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. I left a voicemail asking for an interview and a few days later I was answering a masked call. Edward proposed to meet with his associates before the Memphis demonstration, and then to attend a cross-lighting ceremony that would take place just after in Mississippi, a two-hour drive away. We agreed to do the interview at my hotel right after I arrived. “Don’t be afraid if you see a 200-pound guy with a hood in front of your room. “I told him I’d do my best.
The meeting at the hotel never took place and after a series of missed calls and several long e-mails, Edward ended up setting up an appointment with one of his lieutenants outside a local restaurant. He advised me to keep an eye out for a purple car that’s making a hell of a racket.
Outside the restaurant at the appointed time, I noticed a purple coupe. His driver, who was wearing a full camouflage mask and the kind of hood you put on to go bird hunting, flew down the road and took off. We followed it for several kilometers, to the intersection with a dirt road that led to a garbage field. The perfect place to film a murder scene. The masked driver came out, revealing his pear-shaped silhouette in a black lattice, on which several patches with the effigy of the Klan were sewn. He was on the phone with Edward, I guess, keeping me at a distance. He hung up and said, ” Okay, it’s okay. »
A few seconds later, an old fart truck parked next to us. Three 20-year-olds got out. One of them was black. “Great, I thought. They’ll think we set them up. »
The anonymous member of the Klan seemed nervous. He waved me back and stuck the phone in his ear. “We have to change places,” he said after he hung up, and he ordered us to follow him. We drove a few more minutes behind the purple car when Edward called me: “all right, come back. The guy who keeps me safe was afraid of the little ones. They work here, no bile. »
Back at the abandoned quarry, our masked guide led us to the back of the field. On the way, we met a man, in his 20s, dressed in a black hoodie and holding a German shepherd on a leash who was showing his teeth. The scene was so absurd that I couldn’t get scared.
A big black truck appeared in my field of view. Two men were inside, one with a hood. It was Edward. He went out and approached while his driver was staring at us behind his sunglasses. I introduced myself and asked him how long we had for the interview. “Until it’s too hot, right ? Edward replied before explaining that earlier in the day he had received information that former African-American snipers had come from Detroit to hunt him and his acolytes down before the demonstration. I thought it was ridiculous, until I remembered it was 2013 and I was talking to a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the middle of a dump.
Our interview in the field was not particularly interesting and amounted to a repetition of the rhetoric found on most of the Klan sites, supplemented by a few resumes of what Edward had already told the media : the Klan was based on Christian principles, they fought against the “loss of rights” of the white race and criticized President Obama. (“Yeah, I’m really glad it’s him. [Laughs] I have to say, he strengthened the Klan. “) He also told me that his first meeting with the Klan was when he was 3 years old.
The local press reported that while the Klan was allowed to gather in Memphis, its members were not allowed to have their faces covered all the time. I thought it was funny, knowing that the two members I was talking to were wearing masks. Were they afraid of retaliation ?
“Yes, because they don’t understand us,” said Edward. They think we’re a hate group that wants to kill people. I’m afraid they know who I am. I have kids and grandkids and I don’t want to, you know… my house has been shot twice since it was on TV. »
You could hear rumbling in the distance and out of nowhere, a middle-aged man appeared in a quad with a young black girl sitting in the back. When they came by, I asked Edward what he thought of the “mixture of races,” as the Klan usually refers to Black-White relations. “It’s disgusting. Each with his race. It’s a terrible thing. »
Minutes after the quad passed, Edward said the cops were on their way. He added that he had noticed a police radio on the CB and that we would rather see each other at the demonstration on Saturday. It didn’t make any sense ; I was wondering if it was a setup. They were already in the truck. The big masked guy who led us here dragged himself to his car and I joined mine : it was time to go back to the hotel..
The following afternoon, I arrived in front of the apartment of DaJuan Horton to discuss with the members of the Grape Street Crips their plans for the counter-demonstration. DaJuan clarified the statements he made on YouTube that led me to him, saying that he had gathered several local gangs under the banner of an alliance, Divine United International, or DUI. He explained to me that they were not looking for problems or violence, but simply wanted to show the Klan how to make a demonstration in Memphis. When I saw them smoking joint on joint, I could easily imagine them organizing a sober and peaceful event. Quickly, I had some doubts.
The Will and mission of the Crips seemed to get lost in the smoke volutes when DaJuan said some typical things: “the KKK can’t wear masks during the demonstration, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t wear masks. “He also asked his friend, a man named Shooter, to show us his gun. Shooter said DaJuan wasn’t allowed to have one because he was shooting all the time.
I asked Djuan what he thought of NBF and the fact that we’re changing the name of the park. “I did some research and I found out who it was. He really did things for them, but I don’t care. They can call this park whatever they want. I don’t care what they do with her body, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to sound mean, but that’s what I think. I put myself in their place, he really matters to them – it’s their business. »
We decided to meet again two days later, on a Thursday, so that I could spend time with DaJuan and his team while they drove into the Memphis neighborhoods to recruit demonstrators who, with them, would oppose the Klan the following Saturday. I followed them to a street east of the city, which quickly filled with young people devoted to the cause. There has been a lot of “screwing with the KKK” and various complaints about the permission to demonstrate from the Klan, but few arguments for an overall view.
After this impromptu downtown date with his friends, DaJuan took me to Robinhood Park-an HLM neighborhood that he said was owned by the local Bloods. About 150 people in the neighborhood watched us come in, mostly dressed in red, and the kids were shooting at us with firecrackers. We zoned for a quarter of an hour as DaJuan tried to explain the purpose of his mission and why he hoped that as many gang members as possible would make the move. Some listened to him, most refused to speak. Finally, a white 60-year-old showed up and asked us to leave before we caused any trouble. DaJuan agreed and we split up. I was not convinced that it would succeed in federating the gangs against the Klan but, given the strange events of the previous days, it was not to be excluded either.
On Saturday morning, the day of the demonstration, rain was announced. I was supposed to accompany DaJuan and his classmates to the County Court of Justice but he told me they were not quite ready and told me to come to his apartment an hour later. When I arrived, he was not there ; he arrived twenty minutes late. Meanwhile, a fine drizzle fell from the sky.
DaJuan told me that he wouldn’t go to the rally and that his recruits didn’t either because the Klan didn’t deserve them to spend the day in the rain. “White People don’t care about the rain. I don’t feel good. “He told me that he would think again if it stopped raining but it became clear that there would be no mechanical Orange clash between the Klan and the gangs. On the one hand, it was a relief and given the local media reports, it seemed impossible for the Crips or anyone else to get close to the Klan. About ten blocks had been cordoned off by Memphis police in addition to an assortment of other local law enforcement agencies, bringing the total number of officers deployed to the area to about 700. The members of the Klan would be isolated, transported by bus and then confined to an area surrounded by barriers at the bottom of the Court of Justice. Spectators and counter-demonstrators would also be transported to a separate area and would have to pass a metal detector and undergo random searches. The centre of Memphis would be locked and many shopping districts would be closed for the day. It was estimated that the rally cost the city $ 175,000.
The large police presence, which included several SWAT units, hundreds of vehicles, mobile surveillance camera towers and police in riot gear, was to ensure the smooth running of the demonstration. When some 50 members of the Klan came down from the buses to sit in front of the Court of Justice, they were waving KKK flags with symbols alongside what appeared to be skinheads and several members of other white power units. We were nowhere near the thousands Edward promised.
Members of the Klan took turns at the megaphone but it was difficult to see and hear anything from the media tent, strategically placed behind a SWAT truck. They were chanting ” White power ! “in unison from time to time. The rain continued to rain and the small group of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators gathered a few blocks away from the demonstration were dispersed. DaJuan and his team weren’t. While local reporters were complaining about having to wait in the rain on a Saturday, I began to think that today’s Klan looked like one of those historical reenactment associations that regrets the “good old days” without anyone knowing what it means. I left the protest fast enough and went back to the hotel to dry out before the cross lighting ceremony in Mississippi, scheduled later that night.
I arrived just before sunset in a small peasant village near Tupelo, a two-hour drive from Memphis. I was warmly welcomed by Nicole, the wife of Steven Howard, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the North Mississippi KKK, in front of their home, where the ceremony was to take place. She told me that Steven was still on the road and that, for her part, she couldn’t go because of the kids. Steven, famous for his Red Klan dress, was one of the main speakers at the afternoon demonstration, but I had no idea what he and his comrades had been saying ; the police had arranged them so that they would speak in front of a brick wall.
Given the handful of people gathered on Steven’s property – a large mobile home set in the middle of a wooded lot – Little was to be expected. Suddenly, a vehicle crew arrived and the cars parked one after the other in Steven’s backyard. I counted a hundred Klan members together.
After the meal, half a dozen guys started building the cross for the upcoming ceremony, assembling wooden planks covered with jute cloth and pouring gasoline here and there on their construction. Then it’s time to put on the dresses.
I took the opportunity to speak to Steven – who, at 31, speaks with the enthusiastic charisma of the great leaders of men – for a few minutes while he was dressed in his beloved red dress. He told me that he had been a marine in Iraq and that some of his Klan companions had also served in the army. “When they hung him on the bridge and everything, his body burned and everything, that’s when I was there,” he said, referring to the four people hired by Blackwater Security who were killed, burned and hanged at a Fallujah bridge over the Euphrates.
I asked him what he thought of the afternoon rally: “the police surrounded us. This is ridiculous. A lot of people said they didn’t even hear us ; a lot of people said they couldn’t even see us ! »
Steven told me that the reason the ceremony was taking place so late was because the Klansmen convoy that had accompanied him since Memphis had been worried by a vehicle, which seemed to be following them. They then parked on the side of the road, forcing their pursuers to do the same. The vehicle in question carried a local TV crew. “When they came out, there were two whites, but their team – the cameramen – they were Indians… not Indians, but chinks, Lemon faces and Negroes. I told them they had no right to come to my house. “Then he thanked me for coming and said I would always be welcome.
As Steven’s friends finished preparing for the ceremony, I spoke to a 26 – year-old Baltimore guy who had just created a local chapter of the Klan after his wife’s dismissal from Walmart-for racist motives, he said. He told me that he had been involved in the development of online membership and checking software for the White Knights of northern Mississippi and that his local Klan – which at the time consisted of him, his mother and a friend-was doing a lot of good to the community. When I asked for more details, he told me that they sometimes organize garbage collections in nearby parks. I talked to another guy, 26 years old, a tall Virginia dragon who showed me his vintage green dress.
I also met two members of the Supreme White Alliance, a group of white power skins. They told me that they had been driving all night from Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend the protest and that they would do the same the next night to be on time for work on Monday morning.
As I was talking to them, someone invited us to take the improvised torches that had just been dipped in a barrel of gasoline, to light them up and get us into the recess, behind Steven’s house, which looked built specifically for the cross ignition. I looked at the members as one Hood asked them, one after the other: “Klansman, do you accept the light ? “Everyone accepted it.
Looking at the faces gathered around the cross, I was surprised to see so many young people among the members. Some of them looked like teenagers. During the ceremony that followed, a tribute was paid to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Before, Steven had fulfilled his ritual obligations as an imperial Sorcerer. A red KKK banner and a black SS flag were flying, threatening, behind us.
“Members of the Klan, for God’s sake ! “did he cry out, before being picked up in chorus by his guests. “Members of the Klan, for the Mississippi ! Members of the Klan, for the Loyal White Knights ! “Steven ordered his audience to walk clockwise before picking up what looked like an incantation. “Members of the Klan for the National Socialist Movement, members of the Klan for the White race, members of the Klan, approach the cross ! »
“Don’t turn your back on the Cross of fire ! “howled a voice in the crowd before the cross ignited.
Knowing that a few hours earlier, I was convinced that the Ku Klux Klan was in agony and that a New America had swept it away, the Klansman’s warning was the best advice I had received this week. The American bigotry has, indeed, still beautiful days ahead.