White Lies podcast producer O’Neill debuts with an eloquent and provocative examination of the links between protests over Confederate monuments in the South and the resurgence of white supremacy. In 2012, a statue of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest was stolen from a cemetery in Selma, Ala. Three years later, “The Friends of Forrest” succeeded in having the statue replaced, provoking protests from local civil rights groups. O’Neill, who discovered the controversy after moving to Alabama from Pennsylvania and researching the unsolved murder of a civil rights protestor in 1965, interviews members of neo-Confederate organizations; Selma’s first African-American mayor, James Perkins Jr., who oversaw the initial installation of the Forrest statue in the Old Live Oak Cemetery in 2001; and protesters seeking to have Forrest’s name removed from other memorials and buildings in Tennessee and Alabama. He also movingly documents recent acts of racist violence, including the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the 2017 killing of a woman protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. O’Neill writes with grace and genuine curiosity, allowing people on all sides of the issue to speak for themselves. This inquiry into the legacy of American slavery is equally distressing and illuminating. (Oct.)
In examining the battles over monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Connor O’Neill deepens his own understanding of the denial, the hatred, the horror, that still infests white people in this country, who do not want to lose their magical image of themselves as the noble race who tamed a continent and lifted up savages out of their barbarity. Unable to face the full horror of what we did in these centuries of brutality against other races, we hide in the idea of the lost cause, the idealization of what we call a way of life, and idolize figures like Forrest, a man who made his fortune in the sale of human beings, and who carved himself into history through his wholehearted embrace of the southern war effort that, by his own words, had the glorification of slavery as its purpose. It is a vital piece of the puzzle, this history, reported in clarity and rich in insight. Would that clarity and insight could lift this curse from our nation at last.” —Jim Grimsley, author of How I Shed My Skin
After moving to Alabama, writer O'Neill (English, Auburn Univ.) sought to make sense of his new home by looking at its past. In order to better understand himself and his country, he traces the footsteps of Confederate general and Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest by visiting namesake monuments and buildings. This journey brings O'Neill in contact with activists hoping to remove statues, and Forrest admirers and apologists. Following Forrest, also a wealthy slave trader and slaveholder, takes O'Neill to Selma, experiencing white flight after the election of the city's first Black mayor; Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, with tension between students aiming to change a building name and locals opposing; and Nashville, the home of the ugliest statue dedicated to Forrest. The narrative excels in blending personal and historical throughout, but especially in Memphis, as the author visits a church on the site of Forrest's former slave mart and delves into the general's involvement in the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre. In exploring how whiteness operates, O'Neill maintains that white Americans are skilled at selective memory: "Ideology will assemble the convenient facts and blot out the rest." VERDICT O'Neill is a talented writer, and this powerful meditation on collective memory is necessary reading for knowing ourselves and our history.—Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal
A personal examination of one of the great divides in our country today.
O’Neill’s NPR podcast, White Lies, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in audio recording. In his first book, the author widens his inquiry into race and violence with an urgent and eye-opening look at Confederate monuments in the South. Hailing from Pennsylvania and studying in Alabama (where he now teaches at Auburn), O’Neill thought of himself as an “outside observer.” He focuses on the notorious slave trader and Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom William Tecumseh Sherman called “that Devil.” After the war, Forrest became the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard. For five years, the author “chased Forrest’s memory across the country.” He chronicles his talks with students, historians, politicians, and people on both sides of the issue, presenting their viewpoints eloquently and objectively. It’s “Forrest’s symbolic importance,” writes O’Neill, “that is perhaps the better bellwether for how we arrived at our current debate over Civil War monuments and memory.” In Selma, he met with the city’s first Black mayor and visited a representation of the “magical thinking of the Lost Cause advocates”—a 400-pound bronze bust of Forrest, which was later stolen. The author also recounts how, in 2015, students at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro buried an effigy of the general in front of Forrest Hall as part of a campaign to rename it. Despite the state historical commission’s leg-dragging, the students eventually won. In May 2016 at a NASCAR race in Talladega, O’Neill was stunned with the “sheer tonnage of Trump stuff for sale” and was worried that “Trump could actually win the presidency.” Outside of Nashville, the author viewed a huge, “absurd and tacky,” plastic statue of Forrest made by a segregationist. In 2017, a statue in Memphis, near where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, was finally removed. As in the other locations, O’Neill brings us right into the historically significant action.
Essential reading for how we got from “Appomattox to Charlottesville—and where we might go next.