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Tennessee lawmakers unwittingly vote to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives thought they had defeated a resolution to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest. Days later, the chamber unwittingly passed another resolution touting his achievements.

The first resolution seeking to jointly honor Forrest and the first African-American elected to the Legislature was put off until after the Legislature adjourns, effectively killing it for the year.

But Republican Rep. Mike Sparks of Smyrna included much of the same language in a separate resolution to honor Shane Kastler, the author of a book about Forrest.

The new resolution was passed 94-0 along with other items on the House consent calendar, a slate of bills and resolutions deemed uncontroversial and not requiring any floor debate.

Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat who is African-American, said he opposes resolutions honoring “slave traders and people that were against my ancestors.”

“He pulled a fast one,” Shaw said. “I don’t think I owe any recognition to Mr. Forrest at all. If I could take my vote back, I would.”

Sparks was unapologetic for his colleagues not knowing about the content of his resolution before they voted on it.

“Well, whose fault is that?” he said. “I can’t speak on 1,500 bills and a myriad of resolutions that come up here.”

Sparks said his resolution doesn’t hide Forrest’s leadership of the Klan or that he earned his fortune before the Civil War as a slave trader. But Sparks said that later in life, Forrest renounced the Klan, “became a Christian and stood up for African-Americans.”

Forrest supporters point to his speech before the all black “Jubilee of Pole Bearers” in Memphis in 1875 where he spoke of putting black citizens into jobs at law offices, stores and farms and gave a black woman a kiss on the cheek, which was forbidden back then.

Sparks said he was inspired to include Forrest in a resolution after speaking out against an effort by Middle Tennessee State University to change the name of a dorm named after the cavalry general.

Calls to remove Confederate imagery from public places multiplied across the South after the 2015 slaying of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said at the time that he supported removing a bust of Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol, but it remains in the lobby between the House and Senate chambers.

After the defeat of the Confederacy, the newly formed Ku Klux Klan elected Forrest its honorary grand wizard, though he publicly denied being involved. Two years later, he ordered the Klan to disband because of its members’ increasing violence.

Sparks said he’s willing to argue the merits with any lawmaker upset about the passage of the resolution.

“If anybody wants to debate this issue, let’s go. Bring 1,000 of them, and I’ll debate them by myself,” he said. “I have something on my side that they don’t have on their side: I’ve got truth.”