Selma, Ala., community protests monument to KKK leader

The struggle to stop the construction of a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, first grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and the man credited with building the white supremacist group into a national force, has put a spotlight on Selma, Ala., largely known today for its role in the Civil Rights movement.

Forrest made his fortune as a slave trader before the Civil War and led the establishment of the violent hate group which has terrorized Black communities and others for decades. As a Confederate general, he ordered the outright murder of hundreds of surrendering Black federal troops and women at Fort Pillow.

In 2000, Cecil Williamson, a life-long segregationist and current City Council president, co-founded Friends of Forrest and oversaw the erection of a statue dedicated to Forrest in a city park. The statue was put in place five days after the first Black mayor of Selma, James Perkins Jr., took office. Public protest forced the removal of the statue to the city cemetery, where some Confederate war dead are buried.

Following the disappearance of the statue this summer, Friends of Forrest planned to replace it with a 12-foot monument surrounded by an iron fence, night lighting and 24-hour security. The cemetery is in the Black community of Selma.

On Sept. 25, Selma residents, led by Malika Sanders-Fortier, marched from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to a City Council meeting. They presented a petition with more than 325,000 signers from across the country denouncing the construction of a statue in honor of a well-known killer of Black people.

By a vote of 4 to 0 with two abstentions, the Council stopped work on the monument, pending a decision on the ownership of the land. Williamson continues to subvert the will of Selma’s Black community, now alleging the plot of land is privately owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Legacy of struggle

During the Civil War, Selma was a center of munitions manufacturing critical to the secessionist confederacy. Like much of the South, which was under Jim Crow segregation for decades, a small but entrenched political and economic white elite governed with a harsh hand, backed up by the violence of groups like the KKK. Selma’s Black residents were subjected to night raids by robe-wearing Klansmen, beatings, lynchings, arson, rapes and the ever-present threat of job loss and home eviction.

Nevertheless, a movement for voting rights emerged led by the Dallas County Voters League, which struggled against the literacy tests and poll taxes that kept 99 percent of the city’s Black residents from voting. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers came to Selma in early 1963, and by 1965, 3,000 people had been arrested in protests and attempts to register to vote.

On Feb. 26, 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson was killed by an Alabama state trooper following a Civil Rights protest. Days later, 600 people set off on a march from Selma to Montgomery, determined to end the racist segregation that ruled their lives. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate brigadier general, they were met by an army of police and state troopers who tear-gassed and beat the crowd. That day, March 7, 1965, has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Four days later, Rev. James Reeb, a Boston minister who came to support the struggle, was beaten to death on a downtown Selma street in broad daylight.

Undeterred, two weeks later on March 21, some 3,200 marchers started to Montgomery, their numbers swelling to more than 25,000 upon arrival at the state capitol four days later. That night Viola Liuzzo, a Michigan mother drawn to the Civil Rights movement, was murdered by Klansmen as she was shuttling marchers back to Selma.

For more information on the current struggle in Selma, visit grassrootsdemocracy.net.