Nathan Bedford Forrest : Memphis's First White "Civil Rights" Advocate
Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) was a renowned Southern military leader and strategist during the War Between the States. During the War, Forrest's Confederate cavalry wreaked havoc among Union forces throughout the mid-South. He gained worldwide fame for his many battlefield successes, but the wartime heroics have overshadowed his post-war work as a community leader and civil rights advocate. He fought fiercely on the battlefield, yet was a compassionate man off the field. Forrest was known near and far as a great general, and was a well-respected citizen by both blacks and whites alike.
The Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association (predecessor to the NAACP) was organized by Southern blacks after the war to promote black interests. One of their early conventions was held in Memphis and Mr. Forrest was invited to be the guest speaker, the first white man ever to be invited to speak to the Association.
In a speech to Federal authorities, Forrest said that many of the ex-slaves were skilled artisans and needed to be employed and that those skills needed to be taught to the younger workers. If not, then the next generation of blacks would have no skills and could not succeed and would become dependent on the welfare of society.
Forrest's words went unheeded. The Memphis & Selma Railroad was organized by Forrest after the war to help rebuild the South's transportation and to build the 'new South'. Forrest took it upon himself to hire blacks as architects, construction engineers and foremen, train engineers and conductors. In the North, blacks were prohibited from holding such jobs.
When the War Between the States began, Forrest offered freedom to 44 of his slaves if they would serve with him in the Confederate army. All 44 agreed. One later deserted; the other 43 served faithfully until the end of the war. Though they had many chances to leave, they chose to remain loyal to the South and to Forrest. Part of General Forrest's command included his own Escort Company, his Green Berets, made up of the very best soldiers available. Eight of these picked men were black soldiers and all served gallantly and bravely throughout the war. At war's end, when Forrest's cavalry surrendered in May 1865, there were 65 black troopers on the muster roll. Of the soldiers who served under him, Forrest said of the black troops, "Finer Confederates never fought".When Forrest died in 1877 it is noteworthy that his funeral in Memphis was attended not only by a throng of thousands of whites but by hundreds of blacks as well. The funeral procession was over two miles long and was attended by over 10,000 area residents, including 3000 black citizens paying their respects.