When most Americans think of the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest isn't the first name that comes to mind. But nearly 136 years after his death, this lesser-known Confederate lieutenant general is reigniting racial tensions, summoning to battle a cadre of old and new enemies in the South.
In a new documentary, VICE's Editor-in-Chief Rocco Castoro recounts his trip to Memphis, Tennessee this past March, when the Ku Klux Klan organized a protest rally in response to the Memphis City Council's decision to rename three city parks that honored Confederate troops. The four-part film, Triple Hate, is at once a portal inside the secretive world of the KKK, a tag-along with rival Memphis gangs, and an exploration of the racial politics that still haunt the home of Elvis and the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final days in March 1968.
To consider Nathan Bedford Forrest's life is as much as a Rorschach test as is his legacy, interwoven with the politics that inevitably follow any revisiting of the American Civil War. Among the facts that best approach consensus, it is known that Forrest grew up poor in rural Tennessee, having suffered the death of his father while still in his teens; that as a young man he proved himself a very able businessman, owning cotton plantations and trading many slaves, which ultimately brought him significant wealth; and that in the Confederate army, Forrest rose through the ranks quickly, fighting in numerous battles and later earning the rank of lieutenant general.
What is murkiest about Forrest's life, however, is that which sparks controversy today. The State of Tennessee depicts Forrest as "the intrepid Confederate cavalry leader" who was "one of the greatest military tacticians and leaders of the American Civil War," but some historians contend that Forrest was a brutal commander who ordered the massacre of hundreds of black men, women, and children after Confederates ambushed a Union garrison in Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Further, while it is largely undisputed that Forrest became one of the KKK's earliest recruits after the war, others insist that he also became its first Grand Wizard. While Forrest even went so far as denying his membership in the Klan during testimony before Congress in 1871, his purported leadership role as Grand Wizard still lingers today.
And so when the Memphis City Council voted to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest Park "Health Sciences Park" earlier this year, the local chapter of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan pledged to send "thousands" of Klansmen to protest the change on March 30, five days before the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel. In response, a member of the Grape Street Crips pledged to organize rival gangs for a counter-protest against the Klan. And not wanting to repeat a 1998 confrontation between the Klan and counter-protesters at a similar rally, Memphis police insisted they'd be prepared this time.
To illuminate the complexities of the situation, I asked Rocco Castoro why he made the trip to Memphis a week early to film Triple Hate and what his documentary teaches us about the KKK in 2013, race relations in the South, and American culture in the era of Obama.
JM: At the beginning of the film, I noticed that the Klansmen behaved somewhat differently depending on whether they were at a cross-illumination ceremony, at the rally, or hanging out at home. Could you talk about how the setting may have affected their behavior?
RC: Yes, they had pretty specific instructions about what they were allowed and not allowed to say at the rally, i.e. they were told not to use the N-word, etc. The Klan has kind of changed their appeal, in now they say they don't hate anyone but want to celebrate their race and their heritage. When they are in a relaxed setting at home, they do open up a bit more. Some of them were pretty frank about how they're not extreme as some other guys in terms of what their views are, but their whole thing is that, "We celebrate our heritage." They're having a BBQ – I think that might be one of the most shocking parts of it. People think [the Klan is] just sitting around hating people, but if you ask them, they're not — that's just a celebration of their heritage, of the white race.
JM: What motivations came across to you, in terms of why these men joined the Loyal White Knights? Do you think economic reasons played a role?
RC: Sure. One example is a 26-year-old in the film who lost his job in Walmart and then joined the Klan. I would say the current Klan is kind of a fourth iteration of the KKK. It really started as more a fraternal organization and yeah, I think in times of economic stress, all extremist groups pop up. The first iteration was based around states' rights and carpetbaggers. The second iteration was pure economics, in terms of running African-Americans out of town for jobs — at least that's how history has framed it in some regard. Were there extremes to that? I'm fairly positive that was the case. But I think the reason many of these situations were created was because of the economy.
One thing we didn't put in the film was that many of these guys [in the Klan today] had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. About 10 years ago, the military had a lot of these hate groups infiltrating. I wonder if the reintegration into society for some of these guys — especially if they can't find jobs, which many of them couldn't — might make it comfortable.
JM: Tell us a bit about your background research for the film, including on Nathan Bedford Forrest and his legacy, as well as how Memphis' history and culture played into the aura of the film.
RC: Well, Nathan Bedford Forrest obviously made most of his money slave trading. Memphis is a time capsule for America's race relations and problems. A lot of it hasn't changed. It's unfortunate, but [racial tensions are] still a reality for very many people.
I think geography has played a role in terms of how Tennessee and Memphis have evolved over the years both culturally and economically. It's a place where Southern heritage is very much alive in many forms. It's telling that the rebel battle flag is synonymous with the Confederacy. The rallying point is that the South will rise again, states' rights. This ethos hasn't died. Nathan Bedford Forrest is a perfect example of how even after his death, he still causes a ruckus — he just won't quit.
I think the general vibe [in Memphis] is good: "Let's not forget this, but let's look past this." Memphis has a lot of great qualities to it. The overwhelming consensus was, "Quit messing with these parks. We've got school problems. We've got economic problems. Why are we spending money on this?" Most of the people at the rally were not from Memphis, and that really infuriated a lot of locals [such as the Crips].
JM: What was your sense of how the government dealt with both the rally and the thorny political issues related to it?
RC: If you want to use the metric of did they [the Memphis Police] do a good job based on safety, I'd say they definitely accomplished their goal. But in terms of the City Council, [changing the name of the park] has been a discussion for quite a while. The City Council investigated a few years ago into whether they could change the name of city parks, and they found that they could. If you look at it from a political standpoint of what the politicians want and ostensibly what their constituents want, then they got their job done.
JM: How did covering this story compare to reporting in other parts of the world, both in terms of your feelings of personal safety as well as cultural and social progress in the U.S. versus other places you've been?
RC: I think in terms of safety, you know, there's always risk in terms of putting yourself in an isolated setting. In all these things, it's only after the fact that you might have any sort of concerns for your safety. You can't really think about those things, but after the fact you might say, "What should I have done differently?" With the Crips, I'd say there was a little bit of danger, just in terms of the area of town we were in. With the Klan, it was almost the opposite being isolated in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. But typically people don't want to hurt journalists.
In terms of comparing how far we've come, America's got a very unique breed of hate that's existed forever. Look, we were built on free labor. That's the only reason within 200 years we became the global, dominant superpower. And it was free labor, and slavery. I don't think anywhere should skirt around that. It was the economic realities of the situation, and how things got done. It other countries, that happens, but it didn't exist in the same regard. Any sort of racism is a negative thing, but it's not as much as a tinderbox [in Europe, for example]. It ebbs and flows with the economy. [Race relations have] gotten better, but it's curious that some people are fixated on it.
JM: Do you think the election and reelection of Barack Obama affected the Klan's sense of isolation and paranoia about race relations in America?
RC: A lot of people are out of work and don't like Obama because of that, and they blame him for it. I do think if he was a white president, they won't have that crutch or be able to tie those two things together necessarily.
JM: Do you think most Americans realize that the KKK still exists? After working on Triple Hate, do you believe that hate groups like the KKK are growing in number or is this a dying breed?
I think a lot of people think that [racism] doesn't go on anymore. The rally seemed like, okay, [maybe this is] the death of the Klan because they're censored in some regard, no one can hear what they're saying. People care that [the Klan is] here, but [some outsiders may have been wondering] whether it was just an historical reenactment.
But then we drove a few hours away to Mississippi, and we just see this cavalcade of 30-40 trucks, and 110 people get out — mothers, daughters, sons, young people — either Klansmen or somehow related to the Klan. On camera we have kids that looked as young as 20 getting inducted into the Klan. Which to me is pretty terrifying. In that area at least their numbers are growing. From what I saw , I'm not sure that the Klan is just [a front for a paramilitary group]. That area, it seems to me, is a very fertile land for discontent against government. And that's startling.