The South is a place where many folks still want to believe in an antebellum region of moonlight and magnolias.
Sometimes, that nostalgia clashes head-on with the politically correct present. In Mississippi, such a battle is raging over -- of all things -- license plates marking the 150th
anniversary of the Civil War.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans
has launched a campaign to issue one of the specialty license plates honoring Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest
, who was once the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP and a Facebook group
are protesting the plate, which at the earliest would be unveiled in 2014.
This little drama comes at a perilous time for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who was in Washington this past week attending the Conservative Political Action Conference
(CPAC) and positioning himself for a possible 2012 run
. So far, Barbour
has not responded to the controversy but he seldom shies away from his Southern heritage
And in the South, Forrest is a legend and a hero among Civil War buffs.
The town of Forrest City in eastern Arkansas near Memphis is named in his honor. The Ku Klux Klan hosted rallies in the town as recently as a few years ago. In neighboring Tennessee, Forrest's home state, a state park is named for him. The park's website
calls him "the intrepid Confederate cavalry leader." Forrest Gump, the character created by Winston Groom, was named after him.
Even Barbour doesn't shy away from Forrest. As governor, he has attended the National Championship Hunt for bird dogs and hosted a reception
at Galena Plantation
, the original home of Forrest, who was a millionaire when the Civil War started, in Holly Springs, Miss.
Forrest was accused of war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow
in 1864 after his military forces conducted a bloody massacre of hundreds of black Union Army and white southern prisoners sympathetic to the Union. That only endeared him to rebel leaders like Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lamented that the Confederacy did not utilize Forrest' abilities to mobilize and strategize enough.
He joined the Ku Klux Klan, but then left it because he felt the group was too violent. Most academics agree that this was
Forrest's reasoning for leaving.
"If Christian redemption means anything -- and we all want redemption, I think -- he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words," Greg Stewart, a member of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the Associated Press
. "We should respect that."
The group has had a specialty license plate since 2003. Until last year, it featured a small Confederate flag, but a re-design now features Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, Miss., the final home of Confederate president Davis. Legislators would have to approve the Forrest plate, but they have okayed more than 100 of them over the years.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans group evolved from the United Confederate Veterans, which was formed in the late 1800s. The group is "a historical, patriotic, and non-political organization dedicated to insuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved." Members must have "descended from any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces." They often participate in historical re-enactments and also preserve Confederate soldiers' graves.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, however, says that the group
has been dominated by "racial extremists since 2002." It also states that the radical faction has sought to turn "the SCV into an explicitly political group that pushes racist neo-Confederate ideas and issues."
In the South, the push-and-pull of the past looms largely.
Martin Luther King, Jr. shares a holiday with Confederate General Robert E. Lee in many Southern states including Mississippi.
In Natchez, Miss., the city still hosts spring and fall pilgrimages
that showcase the grandest of plantations from the Civil War era.
Hostesses wear elaborate hooped dresses and black women dress up like Mamie from "Gone With the Wind" and offer pralines for sale. The town sees it as an economic engine. And it works. Tourists from as far away as Europe visit during the pilgrimages, which began during the Great Depression as a way for the town to make money and restore the palatial homes.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy
, based in Virginia, also exists as a women's heritage association dedicated to honoring the memory of those who served and died in service to the Confederate States of America. The group began in the late 1800s to collect money for memorials to Confederate veterans and battles.
It, too, has a controversial past. It opposed integration of public schools in the 1950s and suggested that an all-white public school rename itself after – guess who? Yes, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In July, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are planning a convention
in Montgomery, Ala., celebrating "The Cause for Southern Independence." The first morning of the convention kicks off with, yes, a "Forrest Cavalry Breakfast."