I read earlier this week that the Memphis, TN city council has voted unanimously to exhume and move the bodies of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife based on his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. This comes during a time of the most media coverage I can recall the short-lived Confederacy ever enjoying in my lifetime.
I can only speak for myself, but the only previous knowledge I had of General Forrest was from the movie Forrest Gump:
“Now, when I was a baby, Momma named me after the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest… She said we was related to him in some way. And, what he did was, he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They’d all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They’d even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that’s how I got my name. Forrest Gump. Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.”
Momma was wise in her assertion that we all do things that ‘don’t make no sense’, and in my estimation our newly revived interest in civil war relics seems to be one of them.
My most recent encounter with anything Confederate was during a visit to Gettysburg a few weeks ago. What struck me most about the experience was the horrible loss of life on both sides, and that at the end of the war, each man who was fortunate enough to survive went home as an American. Immediately after the war, Abraham Lincoln strove to accept former Confederates back into the fold as equals, and made it his priority to focus on that which unites us, setting aside the recent pain of war in order to achieve a greater unity, as “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.
The harrowing truth that we must not fail to recognize is that no matter how many flags we take down, how many generals we dig up, how many monuments we deface, and no matter how many mountains we sandblast away, we cannot unite as a people until we together choose to confront not only the legacy of the past, but also the real issues of our day.
As we address lingering racism and the legacy of the African slave trade in our nation, the glaring fact is that the African slave trade not only still exists, but thrives in greater numbers today than at any time in world history. And we cannot deny that we as a nation are blatantly ignoring it. As we consider the horrors of American slavery, we are obliged to take a moment and absorb the fact that there are more slaves in the world today than were seized from Africa during four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
At a moment in which men, women, and children are being enslaved, raped, murdered and sold as property both here at home and around the world, there is an arrogance in turning our attention to a man who has been dead for over 150 years while turning our backs to those who still live through the nightmare we claim to despise. I hold no loyalty to Confederate symbolism, and I cannot change what happened in the 1800’s, but I can certainly learn from the past, strive to be a man of peace and take a vocal stand against atrocities happening right now on our watch.
There are an estimated 28-35 million human souls on this planet who daily endure the highest forms of unspeakable abuse and torture. Should we expect them to take comfort in the fact that we are no longer showing reruns of a 1970’s TV comedy containing a car that may be deemed offensive to some viewers?
We as Americans generally consider our latte-sipping selves to be civilized and advanced. Perhaps we should rather be embarrassed and humiliated that we’ve lost the plot of our great American novel in order to chase the fading allure of tabloid headlines.
As we now consider and address the evils of humanity, both past and present, and as we proclaim that the institution of slavery was and is and will always be evil, let us not be so myopic as to neglect the present suffering that still rages across the face of the earth. While we entangle ourselves in debate about what black people should be and white people should be, who is privileged and who isn’t, which lives matter and which don’t, the world daily endures terror and patiently cries out for our action.
Slavery and trafficking of people is not a liberal or conservative issue, nor is it a religious or secular issue; it is a human issue that should shake us to the core and be of utmost urgency. What argument could be made from either end of the spectrum or any position in-between that suggests freedom from slavery is not a priority for all humankind?
As for the flags and the monuments, they can stay up or come down– it doesn’t matter to me. But in any action we take, let us first address the pressing matter of our generation, let us raise a new banner of Justice, and unite with determination against the evil which continues to demean all who are created in the image of God.
A great way to start is by supporting these effective and reputable organizations that are already leading the way: