After public pressure this year, Governor Bill Lee shared that he will work with lawmakers to end the mandated recognition of “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” in Tennessee. However, Forrest continues to be one of the most honored persons in public symbols across the state.
His statue remains prominently displayed in the Tennessee Capitol, and his namesake still finds recognition through state parks, street signs, and public monuments.
It is a strange infatuation in Tennessee, a theology almost, centered on the elevation of white supremacy.
However, perhaps the most disturbing response I have heard in our movement to tell the truth about our state’s history and to challenge the memorialization of Forrest as a hero is a religious term: redemption.
Many of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s staunchest defenders have championed the idea and even mailed me personal letters arguing that Forrest redeemed himself later in his life. In their words, he is a “redemption story.”
As a student of theology, I am very interested in this concept of redemption and its connection to atonement and repentance. It is something that we embrace in our faith journey, and a question that has challenged me when I think about institutions of dehumanization that appear unredeemable.
In looking at Forrest’s legacy of chattel slavery, brutality, rape, massacre of surrendered black soldiers, and his role in leading the domestic terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, I think of many words but redemption is not one of them.
Moreover, what I have come to acknowledge is that when these Forrest apologists throw around the word redemption, it is not about him — but a way of compensating for their own racist undertones and moral shortcomings.
If this season in Tennessee has taught me anything, it is that their type of redemption only applies to privileged white men (who get caught) and need excuses for reprehensible conduct that has harmed our communities.
They invoke redemption for Speaker Glen Casada, who sought forgiveness after abusing his office, engaging in lewd conduct, and manipulating the people by blatantly lying in the press.
Redemption for State Representative David Byrd, who admitted on tape to sexually assaulting his students. But his defenders say we must “let it go,” because it was years ago and he is changing his life around.
Redemption for Governor Bill Lee, whose picture was discovered dressed up in a Confederate uniform, romanticizing a cause that sought enslavement of human beings and committed treason against this nation.
Those in power are quick to talk about redemption when it is convenient. It is not genuine, nor is it accessible for all people in our state, and that is why it must be challenged.
If they really believed in redemption, lawmakers and the governor would not allow the surge in state executions that we have seen recently with six executions since August of last year.
If they really believed in redemption, they would not be denying Tennesseans access to healthcare, because they see them as undeserving.
If they really believed in redemption, they would not allow the privatization of our jails that incentivize locking people up in our state, even for minor offenses, because of profit motives.
If they really believed in redemption, they would not allow the disenfranchisement of those who were formally incarcerated, upholding barriers to the voting booth through myriad legal obstacles and hoops.
If they really believed in redemption, Tennesseans would not have to beg Governor Lee days before Christmas to accept refugees in our state and to participate in the resettlement program.
If they really believed in the redemption celebrated in this season, it would not just apply to those in privilege and power.
The redemption that we need is far reaching and should be good news to those who are poor, pushed to the margins, and held captive by systems of oppression.