Jacksonville, FL - The Civil War may have ended in 1865, but people in Jacksonville continue to struggle against the remains of the racist Confederate States of America in 2013. With more than 157,000 petitions signed and growing mass pressure on the Duval County School Board, community activists are waging a campaign to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.
Forrest High School is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Spearheaded by the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition (JPC), the campaign to rename Forrest High School hopes to deal another blow against racism and the national oppression of African Americans in the South.
"I think the Forrest issue is important to Jacksonville in a few ways," said Mike Stovall, a lead organizer with the JPC and one of the architects of the rename campaign. "One, it's a homegrown reaction to a history of subtle racism in this town - the hate under the polite exterior, as it were." Stovall continued, "Part of what we are fighting is ignorance of, and the historical revision of, history."
The history Stovall refers to is important. Originally named Valhalla High School, the name was changed to Forrest High School in 1959. The Daughters of the Confederacy initiated the name change as a racist stunt to protest the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated all-white schools throughout the country.
The name Nathan Bedford Forrest is a blunt reminder of racist hatred, violence and terror. Forrest was a brutal slave trader, ordered the infamous Fort Pillow Massacre, and led the KKK. At Fort Pillow, Forrest’s troops executed hundreds of captured and surrendering Union soldiers, most of whom were African American, which Forrest bragged about in his military dispatches. The Daughters of the Confederacy chose the name to intimidate courageous African American civil rights activists, many of them teenagers, struggling for freedom.
When Forrest High School opened in 1959, it was an all-white, segregated school. Today, 54% of the school's approximately 1800 students are African-American.
"I don't think we can talk about this fight and not talk about current and future students," said Stovallm, "and about the entirely different message that the city is sending to those kids."
Started in late July, the campaign to rename Forrest High School draws greater community support by the day. A petition started by Jacksonville activist Omotayo Richmond on Change.org on Aug. 4 of this year reached over 157,000 at the time of writing. More than 50 Jacksonville residents attended a Duval County School Board forum on Oct. 3 to demand a new name for Forrest High School. JPC organizers have attended local events, like Art Walk in downtown Jacksonville and canvassed neighborhoods around Forrest, collecting surveys about the name, which they intend to present to the school board.
"We're getting out in the community, and it's so clear that people want to rename the school," said Fernando Figueroa, an organizer with the JPC. "We stood out in front of a neighborhood grocery store and gathered several dozen surveys in an hour, all demanding that Forrest's name be dropped. When people hear that Jacksonville has a high school named after a Klan leader, they're outraged."
The growing success of the campaign has left racists and reactionaries in Jacksonville panicking. On Oct. 2, the local KKK branch in Jacksonville sent the Duval County School Board a six-page letter hysterically asking the Board to keep the school's racist name. The letter grossly distorted history and openly apologized for Forrest's heinous war crimes and racist violence.
Other racists have come out of the woodwork to speak against the campaign. At the Oct. 3 school board forum, several older white residents from the Jacksonville-based Museum of Southern History spoke in defense of Forrest and slandered civil rights leaders, like A. Philip Randolph. The majority of the audience at the forum greatly outnumbered the small contingent from the Museum of Southern History, who received boos and jeers when they spoke.
The JPC will continue gathering surveys and petitions from Jacksonville residents to present to the school board in November. Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vitti publicly stated that he would support changing the name "if brought organically to the board by the community," according to a National Public Radio interview from July 2013. The coalition plans to march on the November school board meeting to demand the name change.