09.26.12 8:45 AM ET
One Woman’s Fight Against a Tribute to an Early Leader of the Ku Klux Klan
Malika Fortier doesn’t think the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is someone to celebrate.
Fortier is leading a charge against the construction of a monument in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest in her hometown of Selma, Ala. Forrest, a Confederate general hailed by some as a Civil War hero, is believed to be the first national leader of the Klan. Fortier calls the proposed monument “boldly racist.” On Tuesday, she helped organize a protest and turned in a Change.org petition with more than 325,000 signatures to the Selma city council. Her efforts paid off; the city council reportedly voted Tuesday night to halt all work on the statue until the courts decide who owns the property where the monument would be based—the city or a Civil War historical society.
“I never dreamed that we might, as a town, go backwards,” says Fortier, 39, who works in a local law office. “I grew up here meeting giants of the civil-rights movement. I was inspired by the sacrifices that these leaders were willing to make so life could be better for all people. I thought that during my lifetime, things would get better and better.”
A bust of Forrest was first placed on a pedestal in the town more than a decade ago, Fortier says. It caused such a controversy that it later was moved to a more out-of-the-way cemetery called Live Oak. This past spring, the bust mysteriously disappeared. A local group that calls itself “Friends of Forrest” is now pushing to build a new monument—a “bigger and better one,” Fortier says. “They are just determined to celebrate this hate.”
A member of Friends of Forrest, Todd Kiscaden, told a local TV newscast that he thinks Forrest was a hero. “I’d recommend this man for any young people to model his life after,” Kiscaden said. “The man always led from the front. He did what he said he was gonna do. He took care of his people. And his people included both races.” Forrest was known as a powerful cavalry leader in the Confederate army; two schools and a state park are named for him in the South. But he was also controversial, having been accused of war crimes in the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, where he allegedly led a brutal massacre. He joined the Klan after the war, reportedly becoming its national leader.
Fortier says Friends of Forrest wants to make sure “the Old South rises again.” She adds, "Unemployment is high and people are suffering in Selma. This is a very dangerous plan to keep Selma moving backwards.” She says she and other activists had enlisted people to “sit at the worksite" so no one could "pour the cement.”
The ownership of the cemetery land is in dispute. According to a report in The Selma Times-Journal, the city council donated the property to the Confederate Memorial Association—which would later become the United Daughters of the Confederacy—in April 1877, but “no deed seems to have been ever created or transferred.”
The Selma mayor’s office and city council didn’t respond to requests for comment on the controversy.
Selma is known for several high-profile civil-rights marches in the 1960s, including one in 1965 that involved hundreds of marchers who were beaten and tear-gassed by police, earning the name “Bloody Sunday.” The marchers later regrouped, picking up thousands of participants. A monument to Martin Luther King Jr., who helped marchers get organized, stands in Selma today.
“In people’s homes or on their private property, people do celebrate many things, and we are not challenging that, but on public property, it is entirely different,” says Fortier. “Also, even on private property, most of us would not want bin Laden celebrated near the Twin Towers or Hitler celebrated in a Jewish neighborhood. We would understand how this could be highly offensive, even dangerous. However, oftentimes people are less sensitive to how being indifferent to the systematic murder of black people is just as horrific.”
Fortier says the local reaction to her campaign has been mixed. “Blacks, who understand the issues associated with this monument, generally think the monument should be stopped,” she says. “Many local whites think that it’s just history, so what is the big deal?” But “killing African-Americans for sport was a part of the legacy of the South, and this monument celebrates that tragic history. More importantly, it creates a culture where black life is not valued today. It says that it was OK then and it is OK now. These people still haven’t reached the conclusion that slavery was wrong.”
However, she adds, “I did hear some whites for the first time today say they were not in favor of the monument being built here. For our town, where both blacks and whites can be pressured to leave town if they don’t follow the neo-Confederate line, this is progress.”