Read an excerpt from Down Along With That Devil’s Bones, a new book about Confederate monuments, memory and white supremacy.
The American South has a dark and twisted history. For centuries, white, overindulgent plantation owners enslaved millions of African Americans just to turn a profit, and this gross and despicable racism has, unfortunately, permeated many aspects of Southern culture to this day. Perhaps this is most evident by the heated debate surrounding Confederate monuments.
Enter journalist Connor Towne O’Neill, a producer on the NPR podcast “White Lies.”
In his book Down Along With That Devil’s Bones, O’Neill explores the minds of those who defend these monuments. Are they really concerned with protecting their heritage—or is their passion only thinly-veiled racism?
A chance meeting with supporters of monuments depicting notorious Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma, Alabama, inspired O’ Neill to examine the legacy of white supremacy in America. Below is an excerpt from Along With That Devil’s Bones about the first black mayor in Selma.
There’s a story about Forrest from late in the war that I’ve come to think of as a parable for his life and for his memory. September 10, 1864, just months before the Battle of Selma. The scene a train depot near the Mississippi-Alabama border. Forrest is deep in thought, planning a raid. It’s been almost a year since Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, recast the war as the fight to re-found the Republic, and just days since Union General William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta. Forrest’s attempts to cut off Sherman’s supply lines have proved futile. Soon, Sherman will march to the sea. The Confederate rebellion to perpetuate and expand slavery is a cause increasingly lost. Forrest had enlisted in that rebellion as a private, by now he’s a Major General. He’ll be promoted once more, at year’s end, to Lieutenant General. Unlike many of the other commanders, Union and Confederate, Forrest had never been to West Point, had barely attended school at all. “I never see a pen but what I think of a snake,” he famously said of himself. So while other commanders might see to correspondence, read, or consult with advisors, the cagey, solitary Forrest walks himself into a trance to clarify his thinking.
He tucks his hands behind his back, mutters to himself. His steps inscribe a circle around the squat, brick station. A soldier in Forrest’s cavalry spots the pacing general. This soldier has grievances to air, so he approaches and begins his complaint. Without breaking stride, without winding up, without hardly even looking up, Forrest knocks the soldier unconscious with a single blow. Another of Forrest’s cavalrymen looks on and describes what happens next in his journal. After the blow, Forrest keeps walking as if nothing has happened, the soldier writes, “calmly and unconsciously stepping over the prostrate body each time he came around again.”
Each time he came around again. His monuments have a way of doing that, too.
I’ve often thought of this story while reporting in Selma, and never more frequently than when I was trying to reach the Rev. James Perkins, Jr. But Rev. Perkins didn’t want to talk about Forrest statues with me. At least not at first. Which is understandable. You’re elected as the first black mayor in Selma, the city synonymous with black voting rights, and less than a week after your inauguration, a group of Neo-Confederates puts up a Confederate statue? And not just any Confederate statue but one of Nathan Bedford Forrest? Then that statue is stolen and, just after another one goes up in its place, the whole country is engulfed in a debate about Confederate monuments and some white journalist with a Pennsylvania number starts calling you? He was skeptical; my calls went to voicemail. But I figured his sense of what was at stake in these debates would be crucial. So I kept calling. I left my card in his mailbox. I spoke with his niece. And, eventually, Rev. Perkins called me back and heard me out.
I told him that I was using Forrest monuments as a lens to look at race, memory, and the legacy of the war. And in doing so, I was coming to some hard truths about my country and myself. He sighed and agreed to meet for an interview.
“That statue,” he told me before we got off the phone, “was a pronouncement of war.”
Perkins is now the pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. We met for pastries between visits to his parishioners. Perkins is now in his sixties, tall and muscular, dressed in a maroon and gray raglan shirt and a crisp pair of chinos. For eight years, from 2000 to 2008, Perkins served as the mayor of this small Alabama city. He was inaugurated on the first Monday in October — a day of celebration, of long-held hopes finally realized. And that first weekend in office, he remembered, he was attending a seminar for Alabama mayors in Montgomery when his phone rang. It was a local reporter asking him for comment on the city’s new statue.
“Statue?” he remembers asking. “What statue?”
The statue in question was a four-hundred-pound bronze bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest atop a nine-thousand-pound granite pedestal erected in the back garden of a city-owned museum. The morning of the dedication was overcast and threatening rain. Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Order of the Confederate Rose, collectively calling themselves the Friends of Forrest, gathered behind the antebellum Vaughn-Smitherman House to unveil the monument. The dedication was a quiet affair, or it was meant to be. Though the statue was going up on city property, the Friends of Forrest had not invited the new mayor to witness the dedication, to listen to the songs, or to hear the expressions of gratitude to the donors who’d helped raise the requisite $23,000. Friends of Forrest spokesman Benny Austin explained to the Selma Times Journal that, “In order to avoid causing any embarrassment or hurt feelings among the citizens of Selma and the Mayor, we decided to keep the ceremony quiet and not to make a big deal out of the affair.”
But word had gotten out nonetheless. From the perimeter of the garden, over those speeches, prayers, and songs, local activist Joanne Bland led a group of protesters, singing “We will not go back,” to the tune of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Bland had grown up in Selma, had gone to school with James Perkins, Jr., was just eleven when she marched on Bloody Sunday. She went on to co-found the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, a repository of the foot soldiers’ history, and now leads tours of Selma’s civil rights history. She remembers that she was at home the morning of the dedication when a fax came through. It was from a friend in Montgomery who worked in the media, passing along a flyer advertising the new statue.
“As I read it, I became angry,” Bland told me. She knew immediately, and all too well, what it meant: “The statue was designed to intimidate us,” she said. “I was very upset with it and
where it was” — a Confederate monument, on city property, in a predominantly black neighborhood. It was, as she put it, a slap in the face. So she put the word out. Soon Bland and about a dozen others had staked out the courtyard. A police officer on duty described the ceremony as “a Klan meeting without the hoods,” although in fact one protester did don a Klansman’s robe and hood to put a finer point on his impression of the proceedings.
The statue at the center of the garden bore a strong likeness to photographs of the general: his hair wavy and pushed away from his face, revealing the jagged widow’s peak and giving him a vague Krusty the Clown aspect. Nonetheless, he was somehow still handsome: the piercing eyes set off by the high forehead, the sharp jaw, and the sunken cheeks. Seeing the statue made it easier to imagine the man who killed 30 men and had 29 horses shot out from under him during the war, who would joke about thus being “one up” on the Union by war’s end. Easier to contemplate the suffering in his life and the suffering he created in others; easier to see the way the mouth might have fixed around phrases like, “War means fighting and fighting means killing,” and, as he reportedly asked, “If we ain’t fighting to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fighting for?” The sculpture trailed off around the collarbone, leaving his head to float above the six buttons of his double-breasted jacket. The pedestal below named the battles in which Forrest fought along with a partial list of his nicknames: “Wizard of the Saddle / First With the Most / Untutored Genius / Defender of Selma.” This was the history the Neo-Confederates wanted to celebrate (or celebrate publicly at least): the hard-charging, no-schooling, cunning soldier who, in the last days of the war, sought to defend Selma’s way of life. But to that list, one might add “Slave Trader / Butcher of Fort Pillow / Grand Wizard.” But not his friends in Selma. Instead, the pedestal also included the phrase “Deo Vindice” — the Confederate motto that translates from the Latin as “With God as our defender” or “God will vindicate us.”
The Friends of Forrest felt that theirs was a righteous cause, Forrest their man, and, what’s more, they resented the interruptions from the protesters. Joanne Bland told me that one of the attendees even confronted her that day, telling her, “We let y’all have your monument to Martin Luther King.”
Let us? Bland says she thought. Let us!? But she paused, composed herself. “I had to leave her in her area,” she told me, not wanting to lose control and not knowing where to begin. “Too much is wrong with that.”
But the comment laid bare the thinking behind Selma’s partition. A city with black and white neighborhoods, black and white churches, black and white schools, black and white histories, black and white memories would have black and white monuments, too.
“Selma’s problem,” Alston Fitts, who has written two books on the city’s history, once observed to me, “is that it has more history than it knows what to do with.”
From Down Along With That Devil’s Bones by Connor Towne O’Neill ©2020 by Connor Towne O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel.