The Memphis City Council has voted to remove the remains of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park. The Council also wants to remove a statute of Forrest, but other agencies must also approve that move.
A slave trader before the war, Forrest was an able cavalry general. He was accused but not charged with a massacre of black Union soldiers. He was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, though is said to have distanced himself from the group later. He settled in Memphis and, among other post-war business ventures, established a commissary for a railroad he’d contracted to build at what became Forrest City.
I was talking casually yesterday with state Rep. John Walker about his belief that the name of Forrest City should be changed, given Forrest’s inglorious history. Forrest City has a special place in Walker’s career. He tried his first case there as a fresh Yale Law graduate, defending black students mass arrested in a 1965 demonstration. Walker’s account is riveting: He tells of a racist judge who told the young lawyer he could defend his clients if he wanted but the “niggers” would be convicted anyway. He eventually found justice for the youths in federal courts, but even there had to contend with an elderly court reporter who didn’t want to prepare a transcript for Walker to make an appeal.
The arrests overwhelmed the local jail. For a time, dozens of students were confined in a drained swimming pool surrounded by barbed wire, Walker said. A participant in those events talked to the Arkansas Times’ Observer about it in 2011.
Walker was also among the attorneys who sued the Forrest City School District to make it desegregate.