Emotions are eclipsing fever-pitch levels down in Deep South Selma, Ala., where a growing faction of perturbed citizens have joined forces in voicing raised concerns over plans recently approved by the town city council to allow a neo-Nazi, white supremacy group to re-erect a monument on public land honoring Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A bronze bust of the disgraced Confederate lieutenant, equally known for being the Klan’s first Grand Wizard and the massacring of countless black Union soldiers during the Civil War, that set in a town cemetery over the last decade was stolen last March, setting the scene for what the most fair-minded of local residents hoped would come to represent Selma’s permanent removal of all historic traces, at least on the surface, to such a blighted stretch of its history.
Initially stationed in a city park, where it was religiously littered with trash and pelted with cinder blocks before being moved to a cemetery, in recent days a group identifying itself as the Friends of Forrest stepped forward insisting they had collected enough donated funds to have it resurrected.
This time, however, plans call for the statue to be guarded by 24-hour-a-day security, an iron wrought gate and an added night lighting system to further protect and highlight its presence. Supporters readily admit they raised money for its revival by selling informational packets entitled ‘Truth Uncensored’ that were published by KKK members as far back as 1965 openly attacking the Voting Rights Movement.
Details of such plans instantly set off a chain-reaction-like response from Grassroots Democracy advocates which, to date, has resulted in the collection of nearly 100,000 protest signatures on Change.org dedicated to preventing the bust’s resurfacing.
Led by Civil Rights attorney Rose Sanders and as recently as last August, nearly the same number of protestors gathered outside the cemetery to thwart all groundbreaking construction from ever commencing. With the project now on hold pending further review by the city attorney, protest plans now call for demonstrations to continue, including joining for a march with Birmingham church members from the same congregation where, in 1963, four young children were killed in a bombing coordinated by Klan members.
"Would people tolerate a statue of bin Laden or a Nazi? I know of no one in U.S. history less deserving of a monument," said Sanders, also founder of the city’s Museum of Slavery and the Civil War Center. "Hundreds of people, thousands of people were killed in the South by the Klan. Why allow a statue of a domestic terrorist?"
"I grew up in Selma. Now, as a community organizer, I think often about the sacrifices of the people who lived here before me," added petition originator Malika Sanders-Fortier. "I was outraged and ashamed to learn that Selma's city council is sitting idly by…monuments celebrating violent racism and intolerance have no place in this country, let alone in a city like Selma, where the families of those attacked by the Klan still live."
Historically, Selma has served as home to some of the most important events stemming from the Civil Rights Movement, including the infamous "Bloody Sunday" riots where more than 600 activists fighting for African-American voting rights were attacked by state and local police. As the turbulent times of the 1960s played out, the city also often stood as ground zero for many of the movements and demonstrations orchestrated and made iconic by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Nowadays, despite having an African-American mayor and a nine member city council composed of at least five blacks, some wonder how the city and what seems far too many of its modern day leaders could have so easily lost much of the zest and spirit the small, magnetic hotbed for equality has always so seemed to symbolize.
City council president, Dr. Cecil Williamson, has even gone on record as stating he believes the plot of land in question rightfully belongs to the Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that is now advocating for the monument’s renovation along Friends of Forrest.
Recently appearing on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” and in a far ranging interview with Roland Martin, Sanders-Fortier not only took exception with that contention but several other developments that have more than marginally added to all the drama.
“We fought that,” she told Martin of a plan to place blacks in a public-housing complex named after Forrest. In another segment, she highlighted what she sees as the underlining plot in all the public grandstanding and secret maneuvering.
“Hate groups across America are looking to Selma for ways for minorities to control majorities,” she said. “Selma is a majority black city.”
Local historian Steven Fitts, himself a self-described, card-carrying member of Friends of Forest, looked to counter matters with the simplest of explanations. "We thought it would be good for tourism,” he said. “Our Civil War and Civil Rights history brings a lot of people to Selma.”
Yet, given all the ongoing developments, Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders wonders what message many of them now figure to leave the once prideful town marred by.
"Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the richest slave dealers in the South," said Sanders. "Under General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s leadership, black soldiers who had surrendered were murdered in cold blood. After the Civil War, General Forrest took leadership of the Klan and built it into a national force that terrorized black people across this country for decades. There is already a monument to Forrest at Live Oak Cemetery. We do not need a bigger monument of him in Selma, the symbol for voting rights and freedom all over the world."
Indeed and to the chagrin of many, monuments of Forrest are spread all throughout the south, particularly his home state of Tennessee, where even a state park has been named for him. High schools there, as well as in nearby Florida, also bare his name and even Forrest Gump, the fictional character made Academy Award-winning famous by Tom Hanks, joked that his mom named him as an ode to the war general.
“Here we are on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,” added Sanders-Fortier, “and we’re still having the same fights.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.