Gen. Forrest is the subject of a very old hoax that has been around since the 1860s. There is no truth to the rumor that he was ever a 'leader of the kkk' or that he was a racist. When he was called to appear at the 1871 US Congressional Committee that investigated the charges of his rumored involvement with that group, he was building a railroad with most of his workers being blacks, whom he paid better wages than other companies were paying whites. He worked to promote civil rights for blacks, and for all men; his speech to the Pole Bearers is proof of that.
In 1871, Gen. Forrest was called before a congressional Committee. Forrest testified before Congress personally over four hours . Here's part of the transcript of Forrest's testimony to that 1871 hearing: "The reports of Committees, House of Representatives, second session, forty-second congress," pp. 7-449. (see link here )
"The primary accusation before this board is that Gen. Forrest was a founder of The Klan, and its first Grand Wizard, So it shall address those accusations first."
Forrest took the witness stand June 27th,1871. Building a railroad in Tennessee at the time, Gen Forrest stated he 'had done more, probably than any other man, to suppress these violence and difficulties and keep them down, had been vilified and abused in the (news) papers, and accused of things I never did while in the army and since. He had nothing to hide, wanted to see this matter settled, our country quiet once more, and our people united and working together harmoniously.'
Asked if he knew of any men or combination of men violating the law or preventing the execution of the law:
Gen Forest answered emphatically, 'No.'
(A Committee member brought up a 'document' suggesting otherwise, the 1868 newspaper article from the "Cincinnati Commercial". That was their "evidence", a news article.)
Forrest stated ...any information he had on the Klan was information given to him by others.
Sen. Scott asked, 'Did you take any steps in organizing an association or society under that prescript (Klan constitution)?'
Forrest: 'I DID NOT' Forrest further stated that '..he thought the Organization (Klan) started in middle Tennessee, although he did not know where. It is said I started it.'
Asked by Sen. Scott, 'Did you start it, Is that true?'
Forrest: 'No Sir, it is not.'
Asked if he had heard of the Knights of the white Camellia, a Klan-like organization in Louisiana,
Forrest: 'Yes, they were reported to be there.'
Senator: 'Were you a member of the order of the white Camellia?'
Forrest: 'No Sir, I never was a member of the Knights of the white Camellia.'
Asked about the Klan :
Forrest: 'It was a matter I knew very little about. All my efforts were addressed to stop it, disband it, and prevent it....I was trying to keep it down as much as possible.'
Forrest: 'I talked with different people that I believed were connected to it, and urged the disbandment of it, that it should be broken up.'"
The full transcript of the 1871 Congressional Committee can be found here (click here). Pages 3 to 41 contain Gen. Forrest's testimony.
The following article appeared in the New York times June 27th, "Washington, 1871. Gen Forrest was before the Klu Klux Committee today, and his examination lasted four hours. After the examination, he remarked than the committee treated him with much courtesy and respect." Gen. Forrest was NOT the 'first Grand Wizard of the KKK'. For the correct information on that, here are the actual documented facts :
Actually, the "kuklos" was started in Pulaski, Tennessee, just before Christmas 1865, by six ex-Confederate officers, and was a sort of social club for Confederate officers.
Nathan Bedford Forrest had absolutely nothing to do with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. And even within the history of the Klan, differences must be noted between the Klan of the 1860s and the Klan of today. The KKK that was reorganized in 1915 had a reputation as a bigoted and sometimes violent organization, fueled by hate and ignorance and thriving on fear and intimidation. But that wasn't always the case. The original KKK of the 1860s was organized as a fun club, or social club, for Confederate veterans. Many historians agree that if a YMCA had been available in the town of Pulaski, Tenn., the KKK might never have existed.
On Dec. 24, 1865, six young Confederate veterans met in the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, near the courthouse square in Pulaski. Their names were James R. Crowe, Calvin E. Jones, John B. Kennedy, John C. Lester, Frank O. McCord, and Richard B. Reed. All had been CSA officers and were lawyers, except Kennedy and McCord, who had each served as a private in the Confederate army. The meeting resulted in the idea of forming a social club, an 1860s version of the VFW or American Legion. Notice, Gen. Forrest was not present at the founding meeting.Their number quickly grew, and in meetings that followed, the men selected a name based on the Greek word "kuklos" meaning circle, from which they derived the name Ku Klux. Perhaps bowing to their Scotch-Irish ancestry, and to add alliteration to the name, they included "clan," spelled with a K. And so, quite innocently, a new social club called the Ku Klux Klan was created to provide recreation for Confederate veterans.
McCord, whose family owned the town's weekly newspaper, the Pulaski Citizen, printed mysterious-sounding notices of meetings and club activities. As other newspapers picked up his stories about the Klan, word spread and the organization grew.
The actual Grand Wizard of the KKK at that time was former CSA General, George W. Gordon, a resident of Pulaski, Tennessee, where the club was formed. He was often identified with the Klan and personally claimed to have been involved with the group. His robes and Klan regalia are in the Tennessee State Museum. When the war ended, Forrest was virtually broke, having spent most of his estimated pre-war fortune of $1.5 million outfitting his troops. He was spending his time between business ventures in Memphis and his farm in Mississippi. Organizations such as the Klan were farthest from his mind.
After the War, General Forrest made a speech to the Memphis City Council (then called the Board of Aldermen). In this speech he said that there was no reason that the black man could not be doctors, store clerks, bankers, or any other job equal to whites. They were part of our community and should be involved and employed as such just like anyone else. In another speech to Federal authorities, Forrest said that many of the ex-slaves were skilled artisans and needed to be employed and that those skills needed to be taught to the younger workers. If not, then the next generation of blacks would have no skills and could not succeed and would become dependent on the welfare of society. Forrest's words went unheeded. The Memphis & Selma Railroad was organized by Forrest after the war to help rebuild the South's transportation and to build the 'new South'. Forrest took it upon himself to hire blacks as architects, construction engineers and foremen, train engineers and conductors, and other high level jobs. In the North, blacks were prohibited from holding such jobs.
When Forrest was 'elected' Grand Wizard of the Klan in mid-1867 at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, he wasn't even in town. He was 'elected' in absentia. The best scholarly research shows that Forrest never "led the Klan," he never "rode with" the Klan, nor did he ever own any Klan paraphernalia. It has been speculated by many that the reason for his name being submitted for the election was partly a prank, and mostly to discredit him for his work toward black equality such as his hiring practices for his railroad company.
Forrest was a civil rights pioneer.So there you have it. There is no reason to think of Gen. Forrest with anything but admiration and respect. If anyone still thinks badly of Gen. Forrest, that is a reflection of their own bad character, and does not take away from Gen. Forrest's outstanding contributions to humanity.