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A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest sits on a concrete pedestal at a park named after the confederate cavalryman in Memphis Tenn. The Memphis City Council has voted to rename Forrest Park.
Adrian Sainz/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 2/8/2013
MEMPHIS, Tenn.--The statue of Confederate fighter Nathan Bedford Forrest astride a horse towers above the Memphis park bearing his name. It's a larger-than-life tribute to the warrior still admired by many for fiercely defending the South in the Civil War--and scorned by others for a slave-trading past and ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Though the bloodiest war on American soil was fought 150 years ago, racially tinged discord flared before its City Council voted this week to strip Forrest's name from the downtown park and call it Health Sciences Park. It also voted to rename Confederate Park as Memphis Park and Jefferson Davis Park as Mississippi River Park.
A committee has been formed to help the council decide on permanent names for the parks.
The changes have drawn praise from those who said bygone reminders of the Confederacy had to be swept away in what today is a racially diverse city. Critics cried foul, saying moves to blot out such associations were tantamount to rewriting the history of a Mississippi River city steeped in Old South heritage.
The struggle over Forrest's legacy and moves to rename other parks highlights a broader national debate over what Confederate figures represent in the 21st century as a far more diverse nation takes new stock of the war on its 150th anniversary with the hindsight of the civil rights era.
Although the Forrest name change had been expected, a simultaneous move by the City Council to rename Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park was not. It arose quickly after council members learned of pending state legislation aimed at preventing the renaming any parks honoring wars or historical military figures.
Kennith Van Buren, a local African-American civil rights activist, said stripping away park names tied to the Confederacy or its leading figures were overdue.
"It's very offensive," he said. "How can we have unity in the nation when we have one city, right here in Memphis, which fails to be unified?"
Most of the emotion over the council's action has centered on Forrest. His defenders, mostly white, cite Forrest's accomplishments as an alderman, businessman and military leader. Critics, black and white, say honoring Forrest glorifies a slave trader and Ku Klux Klan member.
Katherine Blaylock, a Memphis resident who opposes the name changes, defended Forrest and accused the council of trying to rewrite history.