Sequoyah, N.B. Forrest and the road to unity

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

By Jeff Keeling

Amid waves of rhetoric following the June 17 Charleston church shooting, a rather thoughtful piece landed in my email inbox June 25. While I struggle with whether to support one of its primary conclusions, the writer’s observations about rhetoric, history, freedom and unity have value.

The piece came from Tennessee Rep. Bryan Terry, a Murfreesboro Republican and certified Choctaw Nation member. The immediate cause for Terry’s writing was the proliferation of calls for Tennessee to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol. Forrest was, by all accounts, a gifted military leader who rose from the rank of private to lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.

Forrest was also ruthless. In addition to being an early Ku Klux Klan leader, he led an 1864 attack on Fort Pillow, Tennessee during which African Americans and Union soldiers were massacred.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Forrest bust quickly became one of numerous targets for removal, usually accompanied by commentary less thorough than Terry’s essay.

Terry asserted that, “while many driving this debate (on Forrest) may be sincere, several are playing identity and opportunity politics…” He raised the rhetorical concept of “kairos,” writing that some were using it, “in their timing and reasoning for calling for the removal of the bust to rewrite history.”

I’m not sure removing the Forrest bust would “rewrite history.” It’s very possibly the right thing to do, though I question whether its removal would accomplish anything of lasting value.

Regardless, Terry’s points on rhetoric are valid. One definition of kairos is, “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” To be sure, a number of strange bedfellows have jumped into the debate over flags, busts and other symbols related to America’s painful history of race relations.

It is naïve to think our national culture couldn’t reach a stage at which certain types of offensive free speech aren’t protected. The power base has shifted dramatically.

Expect some within the interest groups who are now the victors to attempt to exercise their power in ways that limit freedom, just as those groups justifiably feel their freedom was limited, if not oppressed, in our past. The Constitution may not play into their rhetoric all that much.

Terry observed, with respect to the current issue, “a fractured nation with many leaders looking to create further division. I see symbols, statues and busts that have different meanings to different people.”

Finally, Terry pointed to the example of Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian who invented a syllabary that led to the Cherokee becoming a literate society. Sequoyah also worked to reunite the Cherokee nation fractured by the Trail of Tears, which, Terry pointed out, grew from the Indian Removal Act signed by another Tennessean with statues in the capitol and a verifiably violent, racist pedigree – then. President Andrew Jackson.

Terry wrote that he sees Jackson and Forrest, “as part of the storied history of Tennessee as they provide examples of mistakes we should not repeat.”

He lauded the 2014 state legislature’s passage of a resolution expressing regret for Jackson’s actions and the role Tennessee played in the Trail of Tears.

Terry concluded with an attempt to add rather than remove, calling for a privately funded bust, statue or monument to Sequoyah in Tennessee’s capitol. He wrote: “I, too, dream of working to unite a nation splintered by racism, fear, and intolerance. For it is through education, we can learn to overcome our differences and become united.”

Here’s to the dream of unity through education.


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