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Art has its seasons

| Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
A statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in a park in Memphis, Tenn.  (AP Photo)
A statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits in a park in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo)

In 1990, American artist Luis Jimenez caused an uproar at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Arts Festival when he displayed a 10-foot-high sculpture of an African-American steelworker with the title “Hunky — Steel Worker” cast into its base.

Jimenez wanted to honor the work of steelworkers, and the scale and form of the statue was heroic enough. But Jimenez was not aware that, originally, “hunky” was an ethnic slur, used for decades to demean Eastern European mill workers.

The United Steelworkers, politicians, ethnic groups and average citizens pounced. The local news crackled with demands for justice. And soon, Jimenez corrected his mistake, grinding the slur from the statue's base.

All public works of art have a season. But if there had ever been a season when use of the word “hunky” was tolerated, 1990 was way past that time, especially in Pittsburgh. Big Steel had collapsed, and those who had worked in the mills, built America and saved a world at war felt betrayed. They would no longer quietly suffer that insult.

In ancient Rome, when a disgraced leader was deposed, the Senate knew that the season had passed for his statues, too, and they were quickly destroyed across the land.“ Damnatio memoriae ” was intended to banish all memories of the condemned. At the very least, it dispelled any notion of reverence or tribute for his malignant ideas.

And it will work like that with the removal of statues of Confederate generals and politicians, whose season passed long ago. These statues were not installed when memories of battle were fresh, as memorials for local heroes, in gratitude for their service.

Most were dedicated decades after the Civil War, long after white politicians turned their backs on the freed slaves of the South, closer to the time when Jim Crow laws were enacted to erode Abraham Lincoln's victory. These statues were meant to serve as daily reminders that white Southerners were back in charge.

Why else would any community elevate Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and others like him? Forrest has scores of statues and memorials in Tennessee, where the legislature established “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.” Throughout the South, schools and parks bear his name.

Like other Confederate generals, Forrest was a traitor who took up arms against his country in defense of slavery. He is best remembered for his command at the 1864 massacre at Fort Pillow, where hundreds of freed slaves and white Southern Unionists were taken prisoner and then slaughtered.

After the war, Forrest organized and led the Ku Klux Klan. As “Grand Wizard,” he commanded gangs of night riders, burning homes and churches and schools, lynching freed slaves and intimidating African-Americans who dared to vote or run for office.

The Klan called itself “The Invisible Empire of the South” and acted like it was entitled to the spoils of a war that had been lost. They were terrorists, nothing more.

The fact that there ever was a season for statues of Forrest is part of our history and must never be forgotten. But no one should have to live in the shadow of one ever again.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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