Gray Day — A Day of Somber Remembrance and Reflection Upon What Is “Gray” In Us All
In case you did not know, July 13th is the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate major general and commanding officer who oversaw the execution and massacre of as many as 350 Union soldiers, with many of them being Black former slaves. Overwhelmingly, these men were killed in spite of having surrendered to the Confederate forces. In addition to having overseen this savage and unjust slaughter of Black Union soldiers and their White compatriots in the infamous Fort Pillow massacre, Forrest had previously earned a living as a slave trader. And if Forrest’s trafficking in human flesh, his traitorous service to the Confederate cause, and his leadership in the aforementioned massacre weren’t enough infamy for one man, he also served as the first Grand Wizard of the infamous racist and terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2019, the response to this litany of perfidious acts by Bill Lee, the Governor of the State of Tennessee, in the state of Forrest’ birth and residence, was to proclaim the date of July 13th as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.” When I learned of this, my initial response was, of course, rage. How, in the 21st century, does a governor of any state pay public homage to a slave trader, an insurrectionist to our nation, a commander of an unjust slaughter of surrendering soldiers, and a leader of a racist band of domestic terrorists? Usually, in this circumstance, the reflex response would be to petition and protest, picket and boycott, and take to the airwaves and streets. But revolutionary change requires revolutionary thinking, and so I felt strongly that this injustice needed to be addressed another way. We speak of history and we speak of heritage. History is the past that is — Blacks were enslaved in America; John F. Kennedy was killed on November 22nd, 1963; Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Heritage, however, is the past we share. It is the past that we highlight and exalt. It is the past we bequeath to our children with joy or with sorrow and shame.
Heritage, however, is the past we share. It is the past that we highlight and exalt. It is the past we bequeath to our children with joy or with sorrow and shame. We can highlight the character of Ulysses S. Grant to fight to free the slaves, or we can highlight the character of Robert E. Lee who fought to bind them. We can exalt a slave owner named Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill or we can place Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave and freedom fighter on our monetary documents of commerce. And we can bequeath to our children the joy of a legacy of freedom on Juneteenth or one of shame, sorrow, and defeat through the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy. Heritage then, is a choice.
It is clear that a large part of America, particularly in the South, has made the choice to make Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederacy an important and proud part of their heritage. This, in America, is their right. Those Black and White who choose not to embrace that heritage can petition to have Confederate statues removed and can, even upon threat of arrest and prosecution, tear those monuments down. But what they cannot do is remove from the hearts of those who pay honor to the likes of racists and enslavers of men their passion and love for that heritage. That cannot be done by legislation or force; it can only be done by the conviction of hearts with truth.
What I have realized is that men such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson do not need so much to be boycotted as much as they need to be revealed in full truth. Therefore, if there are Americans who which to continue to make avowed racists and unjust men centerpieces of their heritage, then it would behoove all of us to know that history and to reveal in truth exactly the nature of the heritage those Americans are choosing to embrace. It is this philosophy which forms the genesis of “Gray Day,” July 13th.
Gray Day is a somber day of remembrance to commemorate in the collective memory of all Americans — White, Black, or otherwise — the unjust, cruel, and un-American deeds of the Confederacy and the architects and passionate adherents of Jim Crow, white separatism, White supremacy, and domestic terrorism that followed in these men’s wake. It is a day that we ask all Americans, not to abolish the memory of the Confederacy, but to learn about all the harm and pain it did to so many people, including the people who fought and died for the wicked right to own another human being. It is not a day meant to bring White Americans to shame, but to reflection about what aspect of their cultural character and action they wish for their children and grandchildren to inherit. And it is a day for all of us to reflect on ourselves on what aspect of our speech, actions, and character makes us “gray” too.
Gray is the color of black mixed with white. Because of this, the color gray is considered “achromatic” — that is, it is really no color at all. Gray is the color of dirty things and cold stones. There are naturally occurring foods of every conceivable color — black pepper, white milk, red tomatoes, green grapes. But there is nothing naturally occurring to be taken into the body that is gray. There are black, white, brown, yellow, and red hued people. The only “gray people” that exist are those who are on the verge of death or those who already are dead. Gray was also the infamous color of the uniforms of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. It is impossible for this to have been accidental or a coincidence.
Just so you will know, Nathan Bedford Forrest — the slave trader, Confederate general, massacre leader, and Klansman ended up quitting the Klan and disavowed and condemned its terrorist actions. In the latter stage of his life, he gave his life to Christ and he publicly spoke in support of full and equal treatment of Blacks in society in America. And after widespread and passionate condemnation of the celebration of Forrest’s birthday, that same Tennessee governor rescinded the proclamation day.
So on July 13th, we invite all those who love justice, who believe that all men have the right to be free in their own dignity, who want to root out and rid not only our society of gray, but of themselves as well, to wear gray on that day as an outward sign of your inward reflection. We invite you to take pictures of yourselves in gray and to post your pictures on social media under #GrayDay, and to take time out to educate yourself and your children about slavery, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and civil rights and to consider what hateful, racist, or unjust thoughts or actions make you “gray” — because all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender — have them. And all of us need to be rid of them.
Bless you all, and may you have an enlightened “Gray Day.”