06 January 2009

Forrest (Gump) Rides Again

The January 2009 issue of America's Civil War Magazine has drawn fire from the politically-sensitive crowd. Why? Because the magazine dared feature an image of Nathan Bedford Forrest on the cover. Two published letters to the editor that followed in the most recent issue were very critical of the ACW for featuring one of the Confederacy's best known (and most controversial) generals on its cover, especially during inauguration month, as if there was some sinister plot to send a message to the new administration. (?!) One letter was particularly caustic, even hinting that the ACW editors might be "racist." I'm not going to republish the whole letter here but I thought I'd cull out a few choice excerpts for your consideration and some comments:

"It does not matter that Nathan Bedford Forrest is a historical figure from the Civil War."

Why doesn't it matter? This is a Civil War magazine. According to the letter writer, it doesn't matter because the public will associate Nathan Bedford Forrest with Forrest Gump and the KKK. I'm not kidding:

"And for John Q. Public, it does not matter what Forrest's military record was (I must assume the writer speaks for the masses too), or the role he played during the conflict, because all John Q. Public will think when he sees this picture is, 'Hey, isn't that the guy who formed the Klan?' You remember, in the movie Forrest Gump, how Tom Hanks' character is named after him and he pulls the sheet over his head and rides off with the other Klansmen and the burning crosses?'"

I think it's quite a leap (to say the least) to jump from Nathan Bedford Forrest to Forrest Gump to the KKK. Is the writer suggesting that historical publications should consider Hollywood movies when making editorial decisions regarding the placement of historical images on their covers? Are editorial boards to tiptoe around controversial topics and persons so as not to "offend" anyone? The writer then states he's copying his letter to the Civil War Preservation Trust suggesting that organization condemn the cover and call on their members to cancel their subscriptions. Unbelievable.

And then there's this outrageous charge leveled at the magazine's editorial board:

"The 'best' benefit of the doubt that I can give the editorial board of your magazine is that you are ignorant and stupid and that no one gave any thought to the juxtaposition of the magazine's release and the date of the election. The 'worst,' unfortunately, is that you are simply racist; [We knew that was coming, didn't we?] that you considered the message that might be sent by featuring Forrest prominently on the magazine and decided to release it anyway."

To be clear, this writer's beef stems mainly from the timing of Forrest's image appearing on the cover of ACW, to wit: The inauguration of Barack Obama. I think the implied connection is quite a stretch. ACW is not a magazine of political commentary. If it were, then there might be something to complain about.

I wonder if all those who are unhappy with this cover ever get offended when two of the North's favorite pyromaniacs, Sheridan and Sherman, appear on the cover of Civil War publications. Where is the uproar over the racist policies of Sherman, or the genocidal statements of Sheridan in his post-war career of slaying Native Americans? Are we to ban the images of all those who might offend someone from Civil War magazine covers? If so, you might as well just put a big smiley face on each cover, though that would likely offend the chronically depressed.

To their credit, the editors of ACW weren't taking such irrelevant criticism without a fight. More importantly, the letter actually presented a wonderful opportunity for ACW to inform not only the writer of the letter, but thousands of other readers as well regarding the purpose of the magazine and some oft' ignored facts about Forrest (not Gump):

"As historians and lovers of history, we cannot shrink, deny or ignore historical facts because they are ugly or unpleasant. We can only elucidate the details to the best of our ability.

The first letter writer is correct in saying that "perception is everything. " [I would disagree with that cliched statement. Rather,
reality is everything. You may perceive you can fly, but try jumping off of a ten story building and see whether your perception or reality wins the day.] But perception must be active and not frozen or fixed; otherwise, it is not perception but rather preconception.

It is no surprise that the image of Nathan Bedford Forrest elicits strong reactions. But what is surprising is that neither letter writer references the articles that feature Forrest in our January issue.

On P. 37, we acknowledge that Forrest's involvement in the Ku Klux Klan, but we also point out that Forrest quickly outgrew that organization's narrow and nefarious tenets. It is vital and necessary to debunk myths and adjust history as our understanding increases. For years, Forrest has been credited with founding the KKK, but our latest and best information informs us this is simply not true. Forrest, in fact, left the Klan and tried to disband it. This new information does not excuse or legitimize his involvement in the Klan, but it does add nuance.
(Emphasis mine.)

History is not static. It grows as our knowledge grows - as a person might and sometimes does."

Well said gentlemen. Thank you for defending your position and informing your readers.

(Thanks to reader Douglas Hill for bringing this matter to my attention.)

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