The Most Hideous Confederate Statue by the Man Who Defended MLK’s Killer
The Nathan Bedford Forrest Equestrian Statue in Nashville is a monument to the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Like its subject, it is a monstrosity with an ugly past.
Nestled on a private grass verge along Interstate-65, just south of Nashville, there’s a 25-foot Confederate tribute, which someone generous might call a statue and others might call so transcendently stupid and ugly it disproves white supremacy. It is both silver and gold and topped with a layer of pink paint. The figure resembles an extra-large novelty nutcracker frozen in carbonite, mouth open Han Solo-style, perched on a horse and left to leer at passing DHL trucks into eternity. It is called the Nathan Bedford Forrest Equestrian Statue.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and unambiguous war criminal, numbers among the most violent and hateful losers of the Civil War. If Robert E. Lee represented the pseudo-stately face of the slave-owning South, Forrest was its shrieking id, a guy The New York Times described in his obituary as “guerrilla-like in his methods of warfare... notoriously bloodthirsty and revengeful.” Forrest massacred dozens of black Union soldiers after surrounding Fort Pillow near Memphis in 1864, became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867, and was rewarded with monuments across the state of Tennessee for decades after. There is a bust of his head sitting in the State Capitol building—one which protesters have called to remove, and Republicans are now rallying to protect. A statue of Forrest stood in Memphis from 1904 until 2017, when it was sold to a private buyer for $1,000. Last year, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee declared July 13th “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day,” a gesture so controversial that even Ted Cruz condemned it. But of all the tributes to Forrest, few capture the hideousness of his legacy quite like the fiberglass monstrosity looming over I-65.
The past two weeks of sustained protest against police brutality have brought American attention back to the subject of Confederate monuments and, specifically, getting rid of them, which officials have now done in at least seven cities. Most of those and the rest of America’s 1,500-odd Confederate monuments were terribly made, manufactured in northern foundries, sold off at Edwardian-era Walmart prices, and hastily installed south of the Mason-Dixon line in a desperate bid to reassert white dominance at the dawn of Jim Crow. The quality has become clear in some of their less official removals: when Durham protesters pulled one down in 2017, it collapsed on impact.
The particular shittiness of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Equestrian Statue was not mass-produced. It was personally customized, perfected in its eye-gouging mediocrity by an amateur sculptor named John Karl Kershaw, who went by Jack. In the late-1990s, when Kershaw was 84, he called a Nashville man named Bill Dorris, who owns the 3.5-acre plot where the statue sits, to ask about his land. “Jack was one of my grandmother and grandfather’s neighbors,” Dorris said on a phone call with The Daily Beast. “He was an artist here in town and he had wanted a place to put this statue and I gave it to him.”
Kershaw was an artist in the way George W. Bush is a painter; it wasn’t his day job or what he was best known for. He was also very bad at it. He was associated with a crowd of Southern writers at Vanderbilt University, known as the Fugitive Poets (a faction of whom went on to form the Agrarians, which had a very rosy vision of Southern history—they all but ignored slavery). Kershaw never found the same acclaim as some of his peers, like poets Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. Beyond the Forrest statue, the only known remnants of his artistic career include a large painting of his wife and an equally massive Joan of Arc statue, also modeled on his wife.
The bulk of Kershaw’s professional prominence came after he attended the Nashville YMCA Night Law School, became a lawyer, and defended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. In the early 1970s, after Ray pleaded guilty to murder and received a 99-year prison sentence, he recanted his confession. In subsequent appeals and an appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations, Kershaw claimed Ray had been roped into a shady conspiracy spearheaded by an unknown outsider named “Raul.”
Kershaw went to great lengths to prove Ray’s innocence. He pushed for the declassification of related CIA files (unsuccessfully) and demanded further ballistics tests on the murder weapon (the results were inconclusive). When Ray escaped from prison with five other inmates in 1977, he claimed they had outside help, pointing to conspiracy. But after Kershaw secretly accepted money from Playboy to arrange an interview and polygraph test with Ray, from which the magazine concluded he was soundly guilty, the two split ways.
After losing his highest-profile client, Kershaw continued his non-artistic pursuits by forming the League of the South in 1994, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a hate group since the millennium. According to the SPLC, the coalition of 40 “intellectuals,” whatever that means, promoted ideas like “a second Southern secession, defense of slavery and opposition to interracial marriage to preserve the ‘integrity’ of black and white people.”
This was just a few years before Kershaw approached Dorris about his land. Dorris, who calls the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression,” insists the aspiring sculptor harbored no racial resentment. “Jack was not a racist,” he said. “Jack was a historian. Jack was not a racist.” Kershaw himself phrased it differently. He once told the Times-Picayune, “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery.”
As if an homage to his own annihilating lack of subtlety, Kershaw carved the polyurethane statue with a butcher knife. He scaled the statue on a small model, but quickly lost sight of proportions after blowing it up so large he had to use a “cherry picker” to reach the top sections. The result is Forrest’s terrifying maw, which Kershaw claimed was shouting “Follow me!” but looks more like Shrek's Lord Farquaad seconds before he was swallowed. The Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter that commissioned the statue appears to disagree. “The horse and rider,” they wrote on their website, “are ‘perfectly’ balanced.” When they unveiled the thing on July 11, 1998, alongside 10 different reenactment groups larping as Confederate soldiers and hundreds of other descendants singing “Dixie,” they called it “one of the camp’s most ambitious projects.”
Courtesy of Dorris, the statue sits alongside 13 battle flags, 13 Confederate flags, and has, at various times, sported homemade signs, all in the spirit of the statue’s incoherent and self-immolating racism. According to local blogger Brent Moore, in the statue’s first years, a sign read “Welcome to Nashville: Future home of the ex-Tennessee Oilers,” implying that the NFL team’s owner, Bud Adams, would sell the team to another city if he got the right deal. That proved inaccurate, though the team did change its name to the Tennessee Titans, in a bid to align the team closer with Nashville’s values. As far as Dorris was concerned, it did: “The Titans are a good name. Because in the KKK, the Titans are the most vicious of the group... the worst of the worst in the pecking order of who was in charge of what, within the KKK.” (The Titans have only played in the Super Bowl once; they lost).
The vast majority of Nashvillians are not as cavalier as Dorris. Over the years, several vandals and public officials have made their views on Kershaw’s piece clear. In 2002, according to Moore, someone shot at Forrest—missing the man, but striking his horse. The statue has since been shot five more times, Dorris said. In 2017, Nashville’s Metro Council requested the Tennessee Department of Transportation plant hedges along the highway to obstruct the statue. The state rejected it, but later that year, Dorris woke to find Forrest had been covered in a coat of bright pink paint. He decided to leave it up, arguing the sunlight had turned it red. (Looks pretty pink to me).
Over the years, several writers have argued that the Forrest statue, which, looks like someone gave Toy Story’s Sid a bigger budget, represents a more honest approach to Confederate monuments. “Forrest should look this ugly, this preposterous, in our remembrances,” wrote Connor Towne O’Neill in New York. In Atlas Obscura, Aaron Netsky described it as “a rare example of a Confederate monument that, rather than being sculpted with dignity and grace, accurately reflects the ugliness of its subject.” But as we revisit Confederate monuments in the context of police brutality, a phenomenon with a direct lineage to the institution Forrest fought to protect, the statue also symbolizes something much bigger. It’s an emblem of American obsession with violent state actors—how it uplifts them, clings to them, and normalizes new crimes, long after we’ve seen how ugly they really are.