In 1867, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of a newly formed organization called the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest had been a slave trader before the Civil War; he was also the commanding officer during a battle known as the “Fort Pillow massacre” in Tennessee at which some 300 black Union troops were killed in 1864. (Whether they died in combat or were killed after they surrendered is still a matter of dispute.)
Now, in honor of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) are seeking to put Forrest on a Mississippi license plate. But the state government opposes it. When asked to comment on the proposal, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, told the Associated Press, “It won’t become law because I won’t sign it.” (See a history of photographing the nation’s war dead.)
Barbour’s reaction is just one sign that things have changed since the South commemorated the Civil War’s centennial in 1961. Back then, much of the South was still segregated – and many people, including Mississippi’s then Governor Ross Barnett, were fighting to keep it that way. State and local governments took an active role in Confederate celebrations, using them to promote their causes. When the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, a group sponsored by the federal government, held its inaugural event in a Charleston, S.C., hotel, Madaline Williams, a delegate from the New Jersey legislature, was denied entry because she was black. For this year’s anniversary, there is no such commission.
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