Tennessee Governor Honors KKK Founder (As Law Requires)

Republican Bill Lee is coming under fire for continuing an annual tradition.

A rather weird story is making the rounds.

Gov. Bill Lee has proclaimed Saturday as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, a day of observation to honor the former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader whose bust is on display in the state Capitol.

Baffling and outrageous, right?

Per state law, the Tennessee governor is tasked with issuing proclamations for six separate days of special observation, three of which, including the July 13 Forrest Day, pertain to the Confederacy.

Lee — and governors who have come before him — are also required by state law to proclaim Jan. 19 as Robert E. Lee Day, honoring the commander of the Confederate Army, as well as June 3 Confederate Decoration Day, otherwise known as Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” Lee said Thursday.

He declined to say whether he believed state law should be changed to no longer require the governor to issue such proclamations or whether he had reservations about doing so.

A previous effort by Democrats to do so was unsuccessful.

“I haven’t even looked at that law, other than knowing I needed to comply with it, so that’s what I did,” Lee said. “When we look at the law, then we’ll see.”

Lee’s doing what the law requires is not worthy of headlines such as “Gov. Bill Lee signs Nathan Bedford Forrest Day proclamation, is not considering law change” (The Nashville Tennessean, whose reportage I’ve been citing), “Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Honors KKK Grand Wizard With Proclamation” (HuffPo), or “GOV. LEE SIGNS FIRST KKK GRAND WIZARD DAY PROCLAMATION” (something called the TN Holler).

Still, it’s a strange practice.

Granting that Forrest is widely admired for his talents as a general and cavalryman, he’s best known as the founder of the Klan and for a massacre at Fort Pillow. That he would renounce and denounce the organization in late life doesn’t really change that association.

Honoring Lee and Davis is much more typical throughout the South, including in my home state of Virginia. Not only are major highways and schools named after the two Confederate leaders but there’s a Lee-Jackson Day that happens to occur just before Martin Luther King Jr Day. (It actually is a coincidence; Lee-Jackson Day long predates the MLK holiday.)

Upon reading that

Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Decoration Day and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day have been special days of observation in the state since 1969.

I naturally presumed that they were instituted as part of a rebellion against the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and the general move to end Jim Crow during that period. But it was actually a step in the right direction:

Before that, they were legal holidays, legislative librarian Eddie Weeks said.

Forrest Day first became a holiday in 1921, the 100th anniversary of his birth; Robert E. Lee Day began in 1917, though it was initially referred to only as “the nineteenth day of January,” and Confederate Decoration Day was first observed as a legal holiday in the state in 1903, according to Weeks.

I’m really not interested in rehashing the debate over whether it’s appropriate to honor Confederate leaders like Lee and Jackson, who were widely admired even by their enemies contemporaneously, although healing our racial wounds likely requires that we don’t. But it’s simply indefensible to honor Forrest.

It’s frankly strange enough to have these days on the official calendar. It adds insult to injury to have the governor issue a proclamation six times a year.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. The fact that this is still a holiday in the 21st Century is, indeed, quite pathetic.

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  2. SKI says:

    There would have been zero consequences for him declining to sign. He shouldn’t have.

    That something is legal doesn’t always make it moral, acceptable or appropriate. Jim Crow was legal.

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  3. @SKI:

    Indeed, it used to be customary for the Virginia Governor to sign a proclamation marking Confederate Heritage Month every March. Bob McDonnell ended that practice, under pressure, and it has not been revived.

  4. Teve says:

    In response I’ll just post a photo of My New Girlfriend.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @SKI: Probably true. At minimum, he doesn’t find Forrest sufficiently odious to take a stand. And maybe he’s actually pro-Confederate; I honestly don’t follow Tennessee politics enough to have an opinion. It’s just funny to get into a tizzy about him doing something literally every Tennessee governor has done six times a year for half a century.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “I haven’t even looked at that law, other than knowing I needed to comply with it, so that’s what I did,” Lee said. “When we look at the law, then we’ll see.”

    Hiding behind the law like all good cowards. Or maybe he’s just full of shit and doesn’t have the balls to tell the truth.

    @James Joyner: Nothing funny about it at all. It’s called a tipping point. Nobody ever said anything about Black and White water fountains either, until they did.

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  7. SKI says:

    @James Joyner: what OzarkHillbilly said. At some point immoral acts need to stop. They won’t stop without public outcry.

    It is never a good look to defend the indefensible or to criticize protests by saying that prior folks did it.

  8. dennis says:

    We are, indeed, collectively, a psychologically sick nation.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I love the idea that Lee and Jackson were respected even by their enemies. Were they respected by the people they were fighting to keep in bondage? Guessing not so much.

    Forrest was indeed a very good cavalry commander. He was also a war criminal, not just by today’s standards, but by the standards of his era. There has never been a time when it was OK to slaughter surrendered troops. Add the KKK on top of that, this man is the American Joachim Peiper. Excellent general and also a piece of sht.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s just funny to get into a tizzy about him doing something literally every Tennessee governor has done six times a year for half a century.

    James, this statement encapsulates everything that is incomprehensible to many of us about the Conservative mindset. At any time, in any place, you could make a similar statement about ANY odious, insupportable, contemptible tradition that is still practiced. In 1850, was it ‘funny’ to “get into a tizzy” about slavery? In 1900, was it funny to get into a tizzy about women voting?

    I genuinely can’t comprehend the thought process that thinks “we’ve been doing it that way for a long time” is even relevant to any question of what is right, or what is important. The presumption that tradition is innocent until proven guilty has been empirically undermined too many times to count.

    And, to counter a likely objection — no, this particular instance is not nearly so significant as slavery or suffrage. It’s not the current issue that bothers me; it’s the argument from tradition.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I genuinely can’t comprehend the thought process that thinks “we’ve been doing it that way for a long time” is even relevant to any question of what is right, or what is important.

    Mostly, I just think the outrage is misdirected. Yes, it would be better if Bill Lee showed more courage and said he refused to honor Forrest. Still, the underlying problem is that this is the law in his state and there seems little movement to change it.

    Further, while I agree “We’ve always done it this way” is a poor defense of something indefensible, those reading only the headlines—which is to say, the overwhelming number of people encountering the story—would come away thinking Tennessee’s evil Republican governor has decided, out of the blue, to honor the founder of the KKK. Instead, he’s following a misguided tradition of honoring arguably the greatest of Tennessee’s Confederate generals. That’s problematic for a host of reasons, but it’s not the impression the headlines generate.

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    As far as failed Trump states go, Tennessee is not the worst. (As they say throughout the South when looking around for states worse off then their own, “Thank God for Mississippi!”) But compared to well run states it has a pretty abysmal track record. This latest folderol captures the reason for their inability to function in a nutshell: this is what their government spends time on. Monuments and holidays to the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Prayer in schools. Kneeling athletes. Teh gays in the bathroom.

    It is a tragic cycle. Sometimes momentum starts to build for decent pay for teachers, or bathrooms for the illegal immigrants hired to pick their crops, or mandating new developments have sewage systems capable of handling a moderate rainstorm before overflowing into the river. When trouble such as this starts, that’s when the politicians leap into action. “Hairy women are in the girls bathroom!” “Those black boys are disrespecting the flag!” “Those mooslums are enforcing sharia law on Knoxville!” That’s all it takes in a failed Trump state.

  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’d compare Dr. Joyner’s response to this vs. his response to the Mexican flag in his other post.

    Dr. Joyner: you have a HUGE blindspot when it comes to an unjust status quos. Your response is universally along the lines of “well, it’s the way things are, so I have a duty to go along with it, because making powerful people slightly uncomfortable is the one great crime”.

  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    And maybe he’s actually pro-Confederate

    Tenn. governor apologizes for attending ‘Old South’ parties at Auburn, reports say

    Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement that he regrets joining in the parties while he was a member of the school’s Kappa Alpha chapter, according to The Tennessean. Lee attended Auburn from 1977 until 1981, when the Kappa Alpha organization “was known for its embrace of Confederate imagery, including displaying Confederate battle flags and members wearing Confederate army uniforms to its annual Old South formal,” the newspaper reported.

  15. Tyrell says:

    The fox-like Forrest was a skilled general. Some of the Union officers said that trying to track Forrest was “like trying to catch a ghost”. Too bad he got caught up in that klan mess.
    Here are some of my favorite Civil War generals:
    General Ambrose Burnside – had initiative and courage, but a cloud seemed to follow him whatever he did. His name and appearance created a common word in the English language.
    General George Custer – daring, but often reckless, which later led to his demise in Montana.
    General Albert Sydney Johnston – probably the south’s best general, better than Lee; but died early on at the horrific Battle of Shiloh (a fateful day in US history).
    General Joseph Hooker – “fighting Joe” was aggressive, but had a breakdown of confidence at a crucial time. He was not afraid to criticize those at the top. Got his nickname because of a misplaced comma.
    General Stuart gets a mention as very skillful but got lost in Pennsylvania at the worst time.
    General William Sherman – not one of my top favorites but a great general, no doubt about it. His later actions toward Native Americans were cruel. Some of the history books leave that out. On my trips to the beach, I have seen some vestiges of his destruction – off the main roads.

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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Tyrell:

    MR. Forrest was not a general at all, skilled or otherwise.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    What makes you say that? He clearly was a general. We don’t have to like a guy for him to be a general – the majority of generals in history have been one kind of a-hole or another. It’s just about how many men you commanded, in what chain of command.

  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Forrest never served in the military of any recognized nation. Just because his little traitor buddies decided to start calling him a general doesn’t make him a real general.

  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I insist on calling Robert E. Lee “Colonel Lee” for the same reason, which pisses off neo-confederates to no end.

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Further, while I agree “We’ve always done it this way” is a poor defense of something indefensible, those reading only the headlines […] would come away thinking Tennessee’s evil Republican governor has decided, out of the blue, to honor the founder of the KKK. Instead, he’s following a misguided tradition

    You say “out of the blue” as if it mattered. I think that’s related to the point I’m trying to make, which is that tradition carries much more weight with you than seems healthy. Worse yet, you give the strong impression that people are entitled to a moral waiver if their immoral actions are traditional. I will admit the psychological reality of the power of habit and tradition, but that’s not at all the same thing as admitted that people are less personally responsible for doing the wrong thing when the wrong thing is traditional.

    To me, this is a major contradiction in Conservative thought. You can’t have it both ways, that personal responsibility is a cornerstone of the world view and that tradition excuses crappy behavior.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    One final thought here — a significant part of my mistrust of the argument from tradition is that it is only ever invoked to punch down and defend power. I have never in my life heard a conservative defend any behavior of inner-city African-Americans on the grounds that it is traditional, and I don’t expect to ever hear such a thing. The asymmetry is telling.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I insist on calling Robert E. Lee “Colonel Lee” for the same reason, which pisses off neo-confederates to no end.

    And then them Duke boys sold off their Dodge Charger and bought themselves a Toyota Prius

  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    The Duke Boys are voting for Trump regardless, so there’s no point in prioritizing their comfort.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @Tyrell:

    The fox-like Forrest was a skilled general. Some of the Union officers said that trying to track Forrest was “like trying to catch a ghost”. Too bad he got caught up in that klan mess.

    Such a shame. He was such a nice boy, before he started hanging out with that crowd.

  25. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Nazi Germany wasn’t a legitimate state by my standards, it did not derive its powers from the consent of a free people. Ditto an awful lot of regimes. But by your standards George Washington was not a general until well after the war he fought and won.

    ‘General’ isn’t an honorific, it means (depending on time, place) that you command X number of subordinate units led in turn by colonels who lead majors etc…

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: I don’t think that for conservatives it’s about what is right or important (who’s to say what’s right to begin with, after all), it’s about showing respect to “the rule of law.” That it happens that the rule of law in this case celebrates bigotry and hatred is either an embarrassing coincidence or the cherry on top, depending on the outlook of the individual.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “The fox-like Forrest was a skilled general–who murdered surrendering soldiers because they were black.”

    FTFY. And don’t be discrediting foxes by comparing them to Nathan Bedford Forrest.

  28. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Germany was still recognized as a legitimate nation by the entire world (including the Allied powers) for the entirety of WWII. Likewise, the United States of America were recognized as a legitimate nation by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

    The Confederate States of America, on the other hand, were never recognized by a single nation for the entirety of their existence. We don’t owe CSA soldiers their pretended ranks any more than we owe soldiers for ISIS, Al Qeda, or any other terrorist group that presumes to call itself a national government.

  29. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I’d note that there is no treaty ending the Civil War. Because in the eyes of the US government, there was no counter-party to negotiate such a treaty with, since the CSA wasn’t a real government.

  30. J R in WV says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The governor could actually proclaim the Forrest was a war criminal and terrorist that fought against the Unites States and should have been prosecuted for his crimes, but unfortunately was not. That would be the moral proclamation to make, and would fulfill the Jim Crow era law he is hiding behind.