Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Forrest Rides Again

A poll on renaming three parks attracts — surprise! — Civil War buffs.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 1:01 PM

Well, the fans of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest have had their fun with park names. What now?

As if we didn't already know, social media and civics don't mix well. The online name-the-parks popularity contest was no contest. Either hundreds of Forrest/Davis fans voted to restore the original names or else a handful of hardcores from the Sons of Confederate Veterans voted multiple times.

The committee appointed to rename the three parks met Monday for 45 minutes but made no decisions. Members got handouts with the results of the web poll as well as a list of suggestions from the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

The former Nathan Bedford Forrest Park that triggered this exercise got 525 responses, with 481 of them favoring that name. Ida B. Wells, endorsed in some well-publicized newspaper columns, public statements, and blogs, was the second choice, with just three votes, the same as Civil War Park.

The former Jefferson Davis Park also got 525 responses, including 484 in favor of that name. Confederate Park got 463 votes, with Confederate Memorial Park the runner-up with 7 votes.

Each of the parks also got a sprinkling of votes for such hilarious names as Consolidator Park, William C. Boyd's Folly Park, and Lost Cause Park.

The cool cats at the Chamber of Commerce recommended the names Rock N' Soul Park for Jefferson Davis Park, Tiger Park for Confederate Park, and Volunteer Park for Forrest Park. Somewhere in there is a message of business development.

Committee members suggested there were some voting irregularities. Ballot-box stuffing in a web poll. What shockers are next? Happy Meals don't make you happy? Politicians lie? Contests that pick the "best" dry cleaner or barbecue sandwich are unscientific? Commenters use fake names?

Some members complained that responses came from people who do not live in Memphis. Unlike the public comments made in person at an earlier committee meeting, respondents did not have to provide personal information. Keith Norman said that factor and "the harsh tone may be some of the very reasons why we are here."

Well, nobody had a monopoly on rigging the poll. The Rock N' Soul fans and Ida B. Wells supporters could have done the same thing. A small number of people, it seems, care a lot about park names, while a large number of people don't care much, if at all. But the Civil War buffs overplayed their hand when they made personal calls to committee members on their cell phones. That is likely to backfire and strengthen any resolve to rename the parks, poll numbers and public comments aside.

For removing a fairly innocuous marker at Forrest Park two months ago, Memphis has earned unwelcome national publicity, a Ku Klux Klan rally that cost $177,000 in public services, and a controversy that won't go away.

What the renaming committee and the Memphis City Council should do now is leave the statues of Forrest and Davis — inscriptions and all — alone. Any talk of moving them or rewording them will prolong this foolishness and create an even bigger fiasco. Put up new signs renaming the parks, using the "placeholders" already approved by the council — Memphis Park for Confederate Park, Mississippi River Park for Jefferson Davis Park, and Health Sciences Park for Forrest Park.

Let the commenters and critics have their say. But no new statues. No more polls. No more renaming. Blander is better.

Racism in Memphis runs deeper than monuments and inscriptions erected 50, 80, or more than 100 years ago. The local history that makes it nearly impossible to develop the public Promenade on Front Street does not involve the Civil War. Downtown's resemblance to a daytime ghost town has everything to do with the consolidation of banks and brokerage firms and the convenience of suburban offices and nothing to do with Jefferson Davis. Baptist Memorial Hospital didn't leave downtown to get away from Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Write this unfortunate chapter off to experience and move on.

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