Monday marked the beginning of the end for for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla.
In a 7-0 vote Monday afternoon, the Duval County School Board approved a change for the 54-year-old school named for the former Ku Klux Klan leader. When the new school year begins in August 2014, the school will have a new name, presumably one not associated with the KKK.
“It is clear that the Nathan B. Forrest name represents disparate views that have led to a cloud of divisiveness that we have had an opportunity to address and remove today,” Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, said in a statement. “I am convinced that my recommendation and the board’s decision will move Jacksonville and the school district forward and allow us to focus on what matters most – student achievement.”
Despite the fact that more than 60 percent of the school’s 1,300 current students are black, the name change did not come without resistance. The school board on Monday also released the results of a survey it conducted in December among various stakeholder groups. Among the 111 faculty respondents, only 48 percent supported a name change. Among the 93 community member respondents, only 25 percent supported a name change. And among 339 alumni respondents, only 6 percent supported a name change.
As the school board worked up to Monday’s vote, opposition in Jacksonville was also voiced by H.K. Edgerton, a black “Confederate activist” whose Georgia-based organization, Southern Heritage 411, was founded to “inform the public about Southern Heritage from the perspective of the hundreds of thousands of black people who love and support the South, its people, its customs, and its history.”
Edgerton has been busy in the Jacksonville area lately. A few weeks ago, he was in the news for attending a public meeting in Lake City, Fla. concerning a Union monument proposed for the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. At that meeting, Edgerton led opponents of the project in a rendition of “Dixie” while he waved a large Confederate flag.
Edgerton told TPM on Monday that he had been in Florida again last week. Last Wednesday, he demonstrated outside Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, and he was joined by several members of the the Sons of Confederate Veterans — the same group that is opposing the Olustee monument.
“I was standing outside in my uniform, with my flag in my hand,” Edgerton said.
According to Edgerton, a school official on Wednesday tried to get him to leave, but he refused. Ultimately, though, Edgerton said he could not stay in Florida through Monday’s deciding school board vote. Edgerton sent TPM a copy of an open letter he wrote, containing what he had hoped to say at Monday’s meeting.
The letter begins (perhaps sarcastically?) by arguing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — because he “broke the sacred vows of a minister,” “consorted” with Communists, and “staged the so called bus debacle” with Rosa Parks — should not have streets or monuments named after him. The letter accuses “United States Colored troops and their White Yankee Officers” of committing “many heinous crimes against the Southern people.” And it defends Forrest as a “friend to the African people.”
“The Honorable General Nathan Bedford Forrest would be called a nigger lover, but never to his face, because of the oft spoken love and affection that he showed in his actions to the African people and especially to those men who rode with him during the war and who would attest to his courage, compassion, and the many lies spoken about him after the war to a man would deny,” Edgerton wrote. “Delight in this madness against a friend to the African people if you must, but heed my warning for very soon you will not be in the drivers seat as your time of sacrifice will come. And you will have to say goodbye to those you hold sacred as those of us who are loyal to the memory of those Southern men and women, be they freed or indentured, Red, Yellow, Black and White who made an honorable Stand against a man who would breach the contract that they forged together.”
Despite the efforts of Edgerton and others, not everyone who responded to the Duval County School Board opposed a name for the school. More than 1,000 current students filled out the survey. Sixty-four percent supported the change.