By Nora Walsh-Battle
What do Nathan Bedford Forrest and Charlie Rose have in common? A lot, actually, both proven and presumed, even beyond their nature-related surnames. Without mixing metaphors, likening sexual assault to slavery, or using inflammatory phrases like “crusty old white man,” I would like to focus in on their most relevant similarity: their complete and utter irrelevance to the University of the South.
So, why, decades between them but with equally divisive reactions to their persons, hold on to them? At a school where we toss aside excellent faculty like rags at the end of every year, did away with Pub lunch without so much as a second thought, and are looking to radically change the appearance and attitude of our campus and downtown Sewanee to get with the times, why keep anything or anyone with this much red on their ledger?
In order to build this comparison, let’s go back in time to 1997, for what I like to call “Smerry Jith and the Case of the Racist Mace.” The racist mace in question was donated to Sewanee in 1964 and dedicated to none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest; I can only imagine that a medieval weapon was chosen in an effort to draw attention from the more recent and far more backward Confederate era.
Bedford Forrest, for my fellow historically ignorant heathens, was a Confederate general during the Civil War, or what its donor would likely call the war of Northern Aggression, and a founder of the Klu Klux Klan. As such, the mace was emblazoned with a Confederate battle flag. The mace remained as much a fixture of Sewanee ceremony as binge drinking, wielded by presidents of the then-Order of the Gownsmen during academic processions. It never received much spotlight off the mountain, which we’ll get to shortly.
When I, an aggressive Northerner, first researched Sewanee, New York Times articles were much more valuable than Sewanee’s sporadically updated and cookie-cutter cheerful website. The article which stuck with me the most was a little off the beaten path; not the one about lowering the drinking age (RIP to the days when V.C. could double as an abbreviation for Very Cool) or about good grades earning you a Hogwarts-style gown, but a piece which examined the difficult decisions Southern colleges face in reconciling their pasts with the present.
Sewanee received considerably more attention in this article, by Alan Finder, and the Kirby-Smith monument was referenced, over a decade before its presence would dominate conversation on campus. The mace was the main focus of the article and its fate earned Sewanee major kudos from me.
You see, the mace met its sitcom-worthy end at the hands of a Universally beloved religion professor, whom I will refer to as “Smerry Jith” for the sake of privacy, and all alumni attempts to fund its repair or replacement were dismissed by the University. Note that the mace was made of silver and walnut, both fairly solid materials. This little bit of Sewanee mythos conveyed that the school was a place of definitive actions, beautiful (or not so beautiful) traditions made secondary to modernity.
In sustaining Charlie Rose’s honorary degree, the Board of Regents has absolutely made the wrong decision and has sent a message that the University adheres to the quickly crumbling status quo that allowed abusers like Rose protection for so long. Though I claim no knowledge of theology or really anything, the spectrum of response described in the Vice Chancellor’s letter, from “condoning perverse behavior” and “condemning the individual,” should not have forgiveness as its middle ground but rather expulsion of the offender (“casting out” would work much better alliteratively, should my input spark a new Honor Code).
Charlie Rose, much like the racist mace, did not benefit our University community exponentially by association even before his exposure (well, after those exposures), and there is no reason for maintaining any connection to him in this new era of transparency. Furthermore, while I have no relationship with the pseudonymous Smerry Jith and do not claim to know his stance on the theological argument, I would imagine he can do just as much damage to Rose as to that mace.