In journalist Connor Towne O’Neill’s new book, he takes a deep dive into American history, while exposing the still-raging battles over confederate Southern monuments dedicated to one of the most notorious Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest. WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with Connor about his first exposure to a confederate monument after moving to Alabama.
Connor Towne O’Neill: It wasn't until 2015 when I had this eye-opening encounter with a Confederate Monument, which is what became the inciting incident for this book. So I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the attack by Alabama police officers on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators. And 50 years later in March of 2015, it was what they call in Selma the Jubilee - this symbolic march over the bridge. So I was in Selma. I was doing some reporting on that day. And as you can imagine Selma is a small City and so 40,000 people are suddenly there - parking becomes a nightmare. So I think ‘oh, I know there's this big old cemetery near downtown. I'll stash my car over there.’ As soon as I pull into the cemetery, I start seeing these signs that say Confederate Memorial Circle closed, no trespassing. I just kind of walked credulously walk over and say ‘what are you doing here? Are you standing guard?” And come to learn that this group who call themselves The Friends of Forrest had spent the better part of two decades fighting about this monument of Nathan Bedford Forrest they had put up. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general, also a slave trader before the war, first grand wizard after the war, incredibly controversial figure from the Civil War. To put up a monument of him anywhere would be controversial. To do it in Selma, it was only more controversial but the dissonance of meeting this group on this day, this Civil Rights anniversary, the juxtaposition of those two things gave me whiplash but raised all of these questions about what it meant to put up a monument of Nathan Bedford Forrest, what it meant to do it in the present day. So those are a lot of the questions that I’m grappling with in this book.
WMRA: The people that you met, The Friends of Forrest, they were there protecting the monument, right?
CTO: The monument originally goes up in 2000. It's protested. It was originally placed on city property. It's moved out to the cemetery, but it's stolen then in 2012. That theft only kicks up more controversy, more protests, eventually a federal lawsuit. And so by the time that I met The Friends of Forrest in 2015, they were fresh off a victory in federal court. So they were out there that day to get ready to put up a replacement Forest monument.
WMRA: Has that Monument been replaced since?
CTO: It has. So I met them in March of 2015. They rededicated the monument in May of 2015 over Memorial Day and just three weeks later Dylann Roof murders 9 parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. And after Roof was arrested images from his blog started to circulate online and it became clear that in advance of going to the church he had gone on this strange unsettling kind of sightseeing tour around South Carolina, visiting cemeteries of enslaved people, plantations, Civil War sites and battlefields almost in a way to sort of steel himself for what he was about to do and so in the aftermath of the Charleston Nine Murders, Confederate symbols come in for this massive referendum, and then after that people in cities across the South start to launch campaigns to try and remove flags, other Confederate symbols, and of course Confederate monuments as well.
WMRA: I was surprised to learn that original monument went up in 2000. When we think about Confederate monuments, a lot of people think these things were built and put up during the Civil War or right after the Civil War. You don't think that they would be built in 2000. How many other Confederate monuments are current and new like this?
CTO: You think they're sort of from the era that they're seeking to commemorate. In 2000 this monument in Selma goes up and in its own context is responding to the same sorts of tensions and issues that were present during the Civil Rights Movement. So Confederate symbols are being kind of weaponized in that same way but happening at different moments as well.
WMRA: Was it hard for you at all to write this book and delve into the mind of someone like Forrest. Did you have a hard time with any of this?
CTO: Yeah. It’s a lot of upsetting stuff. I had to spend a lot of time learning about the slave society of America. That's when it really became personal. I started to see this research that I was doing start to creep into my own life. But by the same token, it was also incredibly enlightening and helped me understand how this country operates and my place in a much deeper way than I had before I started working on this book.