Grace Snell, Viking Fusion Reporter and Annie Deitz, Campus Carrier Managing Editor
The Rome Community Development Service Committee hosted a meeting on Friday to discuss the statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest standing at the base of the Myrtle Hill Cemetery. The meeting occurred at the Rome City Auditorium and was streamed on the City of Rome’s Facebook page.
A petition started on June 7 by Rome community member Abby Sklar opened the discussion, as many Floyd County residents began expressing their interest in removing the statue of Forrest. As of Saturday, the petition had received over 5,000 signatures. Another petition, started by community member Barry Colbaugh four days later, argues to keep the statue, and had also gained over 5,000 signatures.
The discussion in Rome comes as officials remove Confederate monuments across the United States in response to protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. So far, officials in Virginia, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama and Indiana have taken down such memorials, heeding calls from historians and activists who say these statues glorify white supremacy.
The meeting aimed at opening discussion on public perception of and preferences for the statue’s future. At the beginning of the meeting, Rome Mayor Bill Collins expressed his belief that the event would allow for the creation of an ongoing public dialogue.
“More than anything, we want to make absolutely certain that everyone has the right to express their feelings,” Collins said. “You have a right in this great country to the First Amendment, and we want to make sure that we respect that.”
In Georgia, there are many legal roadblocks preventing the removal of statues such as that of Forrest. State law prohibits the destruction or removal of any marker, plaque or memorial related to the militaries of the United States or the Confederacy.
Despite this, Collins hopes that these early discussions will prepare Rome if, in the future, state law is changed. Currently, there is a bill in the Georgia Senate that would allow local governments to alter statues, monuments and memorials as they see fit. According to the Georgia General Assembly, the bill was read to the floor and referred to the Senate Government Oversight Committee on Feb. 6, 2019. Since then, its status remains held by the committee chair.
While the removal of the statue might not be possible at this moment in time, throughout the meeting residents and visitors of Rome discussed their opinions regarding what should be done with the statue in the future. As one speaker, Mark Manis, explained, the statue is controversial because Forrest himself was controversial.
“If you look at this controversial monument, it’s controversial, for one reason, because the man himself was controversial,” Manis said.
A wealthy slave trader from Tennessee, Forrest commanded Confederate troops throughout the Civil War, gaining notoriety for success in battle despite frequently being out matched and having few resources. In 1908, the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Rome sponsored the statue of Forrest in the cemetery, as many believed him to have saved Rome from destruction when his troops fought off Union soldiers in 1863.
In the eyes of many participants of the committee discussion, many of Forrest’s actions both during and after the Civil War were controversial. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, for example, History.com explains that Forrest’s troops killed over 270 Union soldiers, the majority of whom were black men who had previously been enslaved. Despite contradictory reports from his troops, it was determined afterwards by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War that the murder had been of primarily unarmed people, violating the surrender of the Union troops.
Following the Civil War, Forrest became involved with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Although Forrest later denied the association, the KKK declared Forrest the first grand wizard, or leader, of the organization. However, Forrest began to disagree with the Klan’s increasingly violent tactics. In 1869, Forrest ordered the KKK to disband and severed his ties with the group, after disagreeing with their increasingly violent tactics.
Many think Forrest changed his views on race near the end of his life. In 1875, he became the first white man to speak to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed by previously enslaved people. During the speech, Forrest expressed a desire for the empowerment of black people.
Much of this history was discussed at the meeting, where people waited in lines to share their opinions with the committee. Each participant had 3 minutes to state their arguments. While some attended in person, the event also gained 19,000 views online.
Participants such as Colbaugh argued that Forrest’s military victory earns him a place in Rome’s history. Others cited Forrest’s changed perspective and the statue’s educational potential as reasons to keep it. Those opposing the maintenance of the statue, such as Rome resident Jesse Burnette, said that regardless of his personal heart change, the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue honors a system of oppression, since the statue presents Forrest as a Confederate general rather than as a supporter of civil rights.
Jennifer Hoyt, assistant professor of history at Berry, argued that it is time for Forrest’s statue to come down despite state law.
“We had laws that justified segregation and acts of civil disobedience showed their injustice,” Hoyt said. “There is no reason we need to follow a law that was put in place in order to maintain a history of intimidation and oppression.”
Hoyt also said that Rome should work to honor the history of black residents.
“Racism is not just about violence,” Hoyt said. “It is also about whose history is represented and why.”
Lavada Dilllard, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy and Leadership Academy, urged the commissioners to better represent black history in Rome. Dillard said that there are 901 black community members buried on the back side of the Myrtle Hill Cemetery, including 45 influential leaders whom Dillard has biographies of.
Two Romans, Jesse Burnette and Bobby Jones, asked the commission to partner with the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to commemorate the 4 victims of lynching in Floyd County history. EJI provides services to communities to help them challenge racial injustice and tell the stories of those murdered by lynching. Through the EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, the City of Rome could memorialize and document victims of racial violence.
At the end of the meeting, several of the Rome City Commissioners gave closing statements. Commissioner Bonnie Askew, for example, urged all residents to work for change through legal means by calling their state representatives.
“Let’s put them on the spot,” Askew said. “Let’s let them make the law what it should be.”
Although the statue will not be removed at this time, city commissioners promised to work for change. Commissioner Mark Cochran said he wants the committee to explore the more about the history of Forrest, outside of just his relations to Rome. Cochran also requested that the committee honor civil rights leaders of Rome by creating permanent monuments to them throughout the city. “Statues are important,” Cochran said. “Everyone showing up here today and the 9,000 signatures on the petitions prove that. A memorial is more than stone. It speaks through generations. It speaks to the deepest parts of our soul, and we cannot formally recognize or move forward without recognizing where we have been and where we want to go.”