photograph by Sorsillo | Dreamstime.com
Well, that was easy.
Last issue I wrote in this space that Memphis needs to stop letting its story be told by slavers in statuary. The prominent real estate given to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Parks might give visitors the impression that we’re stuck in the 1860s around here.
I wrote the column before the most recent Forrest Park controversy even kicked up. Right as we go to press, City Council has given the three parks new temporary names as placeholders until they can be appropriately rebranded reflecting something more in line with Memphis 2013.
Honestly, it seems like something that would’ve happened back in the 1990s. And, what should really happen is that a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. be erected in Memphis. Hey, there’s that new spot in the former Confederate Park. We should put up an MLK statue that could be seen from travelers coming in on I-40 above the Arkansas floodplain: Don’t just have an MLK statue, make it part of the skyline.
Since apparently everything I say comes true now, I’m feeling slightly Nostradamusean. So, first, I should have a million dollars. Second, the Grizzlies should win the next dozen world championships.
Third, I hope — in opposition to what I cynically fear — we use this controversy to have a real dialog on what we want Memphis to be in the twenty-first century. I appreciate that some people don’t want to see Forrest taken down, and that it isn’t KKK’ers — i.e., the fringiest fringe — talking. I received a number of nice letters in response to my last column, letting me know they liked my MLK idea but also that Forrest was important to them and should stay where he is.
I respect that opinion. The more important question to ask, though, is why should there be an MLK statue? Why should Forrest stay put or alternatively be buried at Elmwood Cemetery where he was first interred? Who are these people and how do they reflect who we as Memphians would like to ideally be?
The debate shouldn’t be about a park. It should be about our collective identity and how we perceive ourselves and want to be perceived by others.
I had the opportunity to hear about the Memphis Heritage Trail last summer while researching a story, before part of that redevelopment plan got caught up in its own controversy, over TIFs and public housing — a great conversation to have as we plan for the city’s future.
But secondary to that, I remain struck by the proposal and am hopeful it will see the light of day in some agreeable form. What has stuck with me is the notion that the Memphis Heritage Trail would honor the “legacy of three centuries of achievement and contributions by African Americans to Memphis’ evolution in commerce, industry, and entrepreneurship.” I’d go see that.
We all inherited our cultural heritage from the generations before. We had no control over what they gave us, but it’s up to us what to accept and what to discard. The Civil War shaped who we’ve been and who we are but doesn’t have to control who we want to be.
I personally am sick of fighting the Civil War. History is not going to be rewritten because we rename a park. I’m certain the Civil War and Forrest will be studied as long as American history and military classes are taught, and as long as the hundreds of sobering battlefields, like Shiloh, remain national and state parks. In other words, forever.
Instead, let’s consider what heritage we'll leave to the next batch of Memphians. Let’s lay down our arms on nineteenth-century conflicts and focus on our own.