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What were Tennessee leaders thinking?

What on earth possessed Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to back declaring each July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” in his state? A satisfactory answer to that probably is not on the horizon.

Lee faced controversy earlier this summer in saying he had no problem in signing a proclamation declaring the observance, as required by a state law. He signed the proclamation for this year.

A few days later, Lee had a change of heart. He said he will work to have the law changed. The Forrest Day holiday in Tennessee dates back to 1921.

Forrest, a Tennessean, was a highly successful Confederate general during the Civil War.

During recent years, statues of Confederate generals and political leaders, along with observances honoring them, have come under fire. Critics ask why modern Americans should honor those who fought for a cause centered on preserving slavery.

There can be reasonable discussion of that. Many people — not just Southerners but those living elsewhere whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy — note that few in the ranks owned slaves. Their courage and dedication ought to be honored, many argue.

But Forrest was very different. Before the war, he was a slave-owning plantation master. During the conflict, troops under his command massacred black Union soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow. After the war, Forrest was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest’s defenders note that in later life, he condemned the KKK and called for racial tolerance. In 1874, after hearing of the lynching of four black men, Forrest wrote to the governor of Tennessee, offering “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.”

But Forrest already had done ample damage to how history would view him. Why Lee did not seem to realize that is both puzzling and unsettling.

Tennesseans have a right to resent demands from outside their state regarding their own behavior. But it is likely thoughtful residents of the Volunteer State agree in this instance that their governor was misguided.

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