Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) was a renowned Southern military leader and strategist during the War Between the States. During the Civil War, Forrest's Confederate cavalry wrecked havoc among Union forces throughout the mid-South. He gained worldwide fame from 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. After the war, Forrest worked tirelessly to build the New South and to promote employment for black Southerners. Forrest was known near and far as a great general, and was a well-respected citizen by both blacks and whites alike.
On July 5, 1875, Gen. Forrest was invited to speak at the Memphis convention of the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association (predecessor to the NAACP). The Association was organized by Southern blacks after the war to promote black voting rights, etc.
At this, his last public appearance, he made what the New York Times described as a "friendly speech" during which, when offered a bouquet of flowers by a black woman, he accepted them as a token of reconciliation between the races and espoused a radically progressive (for the time) agenda of equality and harmony between black and white Americans.
His speech was recorded in the Memphis Daily Appeal as follows:
"Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God's earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. ( Immense applause and laughter.) This day is a day that is proud to me, having occupied the position that I did for the past twelve years, and been misunderstood by your race. This is the first opportunity I have had during that time to say that I am your friend. I am here a representative of the southern people, one more slandered and maligned than any man in the nation.
"I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt - that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don't believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.
"I have not said anything about politics today. I don't propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, that you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Use your best judgement in selecting men for office and vote as you think right.
"Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. I have been in the heat of battle when colored men, asked me to protect them. I have placed myself between them and the bullets of my men, and told them they should be kept unharmed. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."
Whereupon, Forrest again thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the society of those days, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community and did much to promote harmony among the citizens of Memphis.
When Forrest died in 1877 it is noteworthy that his funeral in Memphis was attended not only by thousands of whites and blacks. The funeral procession was over two miles long and was attended by over 10,000 area residents, including 3000 black citizens paying their respects.