If one wanted to put a human face on the historical reason African-Americans sometimes seem so, well, ambiguous about our American experience, Nathan Bedford Forrest would be as good a place to start, as any. The Tennessean Forrest was probably the most brilliant and feared cavalry commander in the Confederate Army, a slash-and-burn fighter dubbed the “Wizard of the Saddle” by his contemporaries.
Forrest’s hatred of the “damned Yankees” seems to have been surpassed only by his hatred of African-Americans. Like many of his Confederate Army contemporaries, Forrest appeared to believe it an abomination and a sin against God that former captive Africans would raise their hands against those who thought to be their masters, and felt that captured African-American Union soldiers should not be afforded the rights of other soldiers.
In 1864, Forrest’s command of 6,000 cavalry soldiers overran Fort Pillow, a federal garrison of 600 soldiers on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River. Forrest’s men later claimed approximately 330 Union soldiers killed or wounded, a 50 percent casualty rate that was fairly high for soldiers in so brief a fight on well-protected ground. Witnesses later said that Forrest’s men continued to fire on Union soldiers after they had dropped down their weapons and attempted to surrender. Two hundred and twenty-six of Fort Pillow’s Union soldiers survived to be captured. Only 75 of those captured were African-American, even though the garrison had been evenly divided, black and white.
“The slaughter was awful,” a soldier with the 20th Tennessee calvalry (Confederate) later wrote. “Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”
Later, following the end of the Civil War, Forrest was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, the white terrorist militia that made its reputation by assassinating black officeholders and burning black people off their lands, trying to drive them back into slavery.
I knew all this history several years ago when I began reading Shelby Foote’s epic three-volume The Civil War. A Narrative. I hated Forrest as much as one can hate someone of whom they’ve only read, and every time I came upon an account of some battle in which he was involved, some close call or miraculous escape which he engineered, I would think, if only they had gotten him, then, he wouldn’t have outlived the war, the KKK would never have been formed, and the bloody and terrible hundred years of terror between Appomattox and Selma would never have happened.
It took me a while to realize how wrong that supposition was. There is nothing inevitable in human events, and it is not inevitable that the Klan would have formed following the Civil War. Some single event, or series of events, could have sent U.S. history in a completely different direction. It’s possible that event might have been the death of Nathan Bedford Forrest. It’s also just as possible that Forrest’s death during the war would have had only a fragmentary effect on the reign of white Southern terrorism that followed, and that if this were the only difference, the so-called Ray Bradbury “butterfly effect,” then the burnings and the beatings and lynchings might have easily gone on along the same horrible, horrific course.
I seek to make no association between the actions of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the politics of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and if you think I am in some hidden way, you’re wrong, and please, respectfully, go back and read the previous paragraphs. But I bring Forrest into the discussion to make a point about a mistake I believe our progressive friends are making with Ms. Palin.
Even while the general election was still in full swing, there was a nagging concern in progressive circles about what role Ms. Palin would play in national affairs post-election, particularly that she might become a populist rallying point for the national conservative movement with the possibility of sweeping the country and sweeping back the gains so recently won by progressives and the Democratic Party. And so, with one eye on the just-past November 4th but another on future Novembers, many progressives have gone after Ms. Palin personally and with a vengeance, seemingly in the hopes that in stopping the person, they can abort the incipient movement.
I think they are wrong about Ms. Palin—not about her politics, but that she will take on the role of a long-term messianic national leader such as, say, Ralph Nader or George Wallace—but that is besides the point right now. More important, I think that while political attacks on an individual can work for an individual election or even drive someone permanently out of the political arena, doing so in an attempt to stop a young political movement is like trying to prevent earthquakes by filling up the San Andreas fault cracklines with braces and cement. Even if that were geophysically possible in the short-run, you’d only make the buildup to the postponed and inevitable explosion that much greater.
Maybe more precisely, we seem to approach battles with these far-right personalities like a kid playing one of those pop-up toys in which the object is to knock down the heads of the plastic figures coming up through the holes. The kids think they’ve won when they’ve knocked all the heads down with their plastic hammer, but that never happens, because the heads never stop popping up through the holes, ready to take their whacks. That’s the way of life, friends.
For a season of our lives, the demon of progressive dreams was the right-wing commentator Anne Coulter—“Coulter-geist,” as Keith Olbermann loved to call her—and for a time the vitriol she stirred was at a fever boil. Nothing could get a response on a progressive blog quicker than a Coulter comment, something she knew and exploited to no end to promote a series of books. Ms. Coulter’s attacks on liberals and progressives were pointedly personal and irredeemably vile and, to their discredit, our progressive friends often attacked back in kind (one of the worst, in my opinion, was the charge that Ms. Coulter was a transvestite, an odd damnation from a sector of the community purportedly in favor of a more liberal definition of gender lines).
But there was something even odder about the Coulter phenomenon. Sometime in the middle of the Obama-McCain election—an epic liberal-conservative battle in which one would have thought Ms. Coulter would have delightedly plunged—Ms. Coulter disappeared. For weeks—months—she was completely silent. The notable thing was not that she disappeared—that was the odd part—but that not many people seemed to have noticed, only doing so after she resurfaced, very briefly, a day or so before the election.
Ms. Coulter disappeared, for whatever reason, and the right-left battles went on without pause.
There are large numbers of people in this country—some of them good friends of mine—who believe that radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and television commentator Bill O’Reilly are the devil incarnate, either whose spawn should be wiped clean from the earth or, at the very least, whose tenure on the airwaves should be ended. To them, I offer the name Father Edward Coughlin. Mr. Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who came to fame during the Depression years as a radio commentator—the “radio priest,” he was commonly called, and sometimes the “father of hate radio”—starting as a Franklin Roosevelt supporter but quickly turning against the president.
While he was a vocal opponent of the “capitalist bosses,” an easy target for a populist in the Depression, Mr. Coughlin became most famous or infamous, for his attacks against Jews. After starting with CBS he eventually formed his own radio network—operating 30 stations nationally-and his own weekly newspaper, and he regularly spoke at rallies numbering in the thousands. In his time, which was considerably more volatile than today, Mr. Coughlin was probably more powerful and influential than Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. O’Reilly combined. And yet, eventually, both his power and his movement faded, and though he was a formidable force in his time, today he is barely a blip in the national memory bank.
So if this is a for-point story, what’s the point, the young pupil asks. A simple one I think.
There is much temptation—and, frankly, much reward—in making personal attack the preferred strategy in social movement. I have done so myself on occasion, to some effect, though far less in recent years. However, to engage in those actions as a strategy rather than a temporary tactic is something of the opposite of the teach-a-guy-to-fish adage. You can stop an individual with such tactics-sometimes permanently if you’re good at it, or lucky. But the underlying balance of forces have not really changed, and if your point is to change the world, you’ve missed your mark. To do that, you have to do battle with the ideas that lie behind.
There will always be a Sarah Palin, or somebody like her. And there will always be a far-right for them to lead. The question is, how large a far-right will that be, and how far-reaching. That is up to us, and something to remember and consider as we relax and enjoy the moment, temporarily, in the euphoric waters of the recent historic elections.