Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signs bill to celebrate Confederate general, slave trader and KKK member

July 13 is celebrated as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee.

July 13, 2019, 9:14 AM

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill declaring Saturday as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in honor of the Confederate general, slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader.

The governor of Tennessee has been required by law to annually declare July 13 in honor of the general. And Lee said he has no plans to dispense with the tradition.

"I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law," Lee told The Tennessean Thursday.

The law has earned derision from both sides of the aisle.

"I think for many of us that know this has happened have oftentimes wondered when would a governor ask us to assist in helping change the law," state Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, who is black, told Memphis ABC affiliate WATN.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Chattanooga Red Wolves Soccer Club stadium on Tuesday, July 9, 2019 in East Ridge, Tenn.
C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, directly addressed the controversy on Twitter Thursday, calling for the law to be changed as well.

"This is WRONG. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general & a delegate to the 1868 Democratic Convention," Cruz wrote. "He was also a slave trader & the 1st Grand Wizard of the KKK. Tennessee should not have an official day (tomorrow) honoring him. Change the law."

Forrest was born poor in 1821, but eventually found business success as a plantation owner and slave trader in the 1840s and 1850s. He enlisted in the Confederate States Army in 1861 and was given command of a cavalry unit. He rose through the ranks as a military tactician and eventually became a general in the Confederate Army.

Following the war, he continued as a businessman and joined the Ku Klux Klan soon after its founding. He was the first leader of the KKK, coined the Grand Wizard.

In this Aug. 18, 2017, file photo, a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in a park in Memphis, Tenn.
Adrian Sainz/AP, File

A bust of Forrest remains in the state Capitol in Nashville.

In December 2017, a statue of Forrest riding a horse was removed from Health Sciences Park in Memphis. Memphis has a population more than 60% black -- one of the highest in the nation.

The same law that mandates Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, Tennessee Code 15-2-101, mandates a Robert E. Lee Day for Jan. 19 -- in honor of the famous Confederate general. It also requires an Abraham Lincoln Day, on Feb. 12, and Andrew Jackson Day, on March 15.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated Memphis was the capital of Tennessee. Nashville is the capital.

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