VOL. 132 | NO. 86 | Monday, May 1, 2017
Tenn. Lawmakers Look to Void Resolution Honoring Forrest Biographer
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – Memphis lawmakers blasted a Smyrna legislator Thursday morning, accusing him of violating their honor system by sliding a resolution through the House honoring an author they perceive as a Nathan Bedford Forrest apologist.
“The worst thing about what has happened … is the deception. You can’t be an effective legislator in the Tennessee General Assembly unless your fellow legislators can trust you, and that bond is broken,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat.
Hardaway and several other legislators spoke adamantly against an April 13 consent calendar resolution by Rep. Mike Sparks honoring Pastor Shane Kastler, a Lake Charles, Louisiana, author who wrote the biography, “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption.” The resolution passed unanimously on its consent calendar, typically used for non-controversial items.
Lawmakers brought up the matter on the House floor following an Associated Press report. House Speaker Beth Harwell signed the measure, though it is unclear whether she read it because of the volume of memorial and recognition resolutions the House approves.
Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, called Sparks’ move “a bit disingenuous” and pointed out House members were forced to vote on something they normally wouldn’t have supported because they didn’t recognize the author or realize it dealt with Forrest. She noted House members depend on each other not to put controversial or “substantive” matters on the consent agenda, though sometimes items are removed for individual consideration.
Said Akbari, chairwoman of the Black Caucus, “We have a process, we discuss things for a reason. We have committees for a reason, and when you try and circumvent that process, you really do a disservice to the entire integrity of the body and the deliberative process.”
Members of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, including Akbari, advised Sparks against trying to pass a resolution recognizing the history of Tennessee, the accomplishments of Sampson Keeble, the state’s first black legislator during Reconstruction, and Forrest, who purportedly changed his life in later years and advocated for civil rights after trading and owning slaves and possibly committing war crimes in a massacre of black and white troops at Fort Pillow.
“As a result, he has to deal with this because it’s put our state, it’s put our speaker, it’s put our leadership in a really, really bad way, because we’re in the South,” said Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat who told Sparks to drop the idea.
Towns and Akbari said they will try to repeal the resolution or take some other action to reverse it, but since the House speaker had signed it already that could take until next year.
Sparks took his initial resolution to the House State Government Committee where it was sent to summer study, killing it for the year, because even though he amended it to honor Keeble alone, it remained connected to Forrest.
In that meeting, Rep. Johnny Shaw, a black legislator from Bolivar, told Sparks he was “highly insulted” that at first he combined Keeble and Forrest in the same resolution.
“If you want to get my respect, just treat me like a man, and I will do the same to you,” Shaw said, explaining African-Americans are trying to be treated right in the modern day rather than look back in history.
Instead of letting the matter go, Sparks placed a different resolution on the consent calendar recognizing the accomplishments of Kastler, but taking portions of the previous resolution he filed. It goes into the history of Forrest, stating he is viewed by some people as a Civil War hero and military genius and “reviled” by others as the “father of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The Smyrna Republican apologized on the House floor for offending people, but he was unapologetic in an interview afterward, saying he is concerned about the effect of being politically correct.
“What other leader in the state of Tennessee had 3,000 African-Americans attend his funeral?” Sparks said, referring to reports on Forrest’s death. “So he had to have a story of redemption. I’m not trying to offend anybody. It’s just honoring the author who told the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, his religious conversion and becoming a Christian and advocating for African-Americans.”
He noted items are often removed from the consent calendar and denied sneaking the matter through the House process.
“I think some people don’t know what consent calendar is for. I don’t know what their argument is,” he said.
Sparks said he decided to sponsor the resolution after listening to debates and talking to MTSU students last year when the university was considering removing Forrest’s name from its ROTC building.
Sparks’ resolution points out that Kastler’s biography notes Forrest started going to church and advocating for black civil rights while living in Memphis after the war. He had come from humble beginnings near Chapel Hill, then “made a fortune” as a slave trader, planter and land speculator.
The resolution says even though Forrest was a leader in the earliest form of the KKK, he isn’t considered its founder by most historians but was elected its first grand wizard before leaving the group and renouncing its “racist actions.”
“… To truly know the history of Tennessee and its people, it is important for all Tennesseans to reflect upon all of our state’s past, to learn our shared history, to understand the courage and sacrifices of those who came before us, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to understand that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us forward if we thoughtfully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and opportunities that lie before us …” the resolution states, as it ends up recognizing the contributions of Kastler to the history of Tennessee and honoring his writing accomplishments.
Sparks contends Forrest’s life is a story of redemption, along with John Newton, who transformed from slave trader to penning “Amazing Grace,” and David, the king of Israel.
Even though he might have lost the trust of Black Caucus members, Sparks pointed out he stood with the group during one of its initiatives, one of the few Republicans to do so, and fought to reopen a predominantly black church in the city of La Vergne when it went through a battle with the city government.
“It’s because I care about civil rights,” Sparks said.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.