By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Racist, murderer, or savior of the town? Nathan Bedford Forrest still stirs controversy in Selma, Alabama, where emotions are running high over plans to replace a monument honoring the Civil War officer and Ku Klux Klan founder.
A bust of Forrest was stolen from a cemetery in the city in March and when the Friends of Forrest raised money to replace it, opponents gathered 84,000 signatures to stop them.
In August, protestors laid in front of trucks to prevent the statue from being installed, said civil rights lawyer Rose Sanders, who founded The Museum of Slavery and the Civil War in Selma.
Protestors now plan to march on the cemetery on Friday, then drive to a church in Birmingham, some 85 miles away, where four children were killed in 1963 by a bomb set by Klan members, said organizer Sanders. The protestors are part of a local group called Grassroots Democracy.
"Would people tolerate a statue of bin Laden or a Nazi? I know of no one in U.S. history less deserving of a monument," said Sanders.
More than 10 years ago, the Friends of Forrest placed the original statue at the Selma historical museum, then moved it to the cemetery where Confederate veterans are buried. The acre of land on which the cemetery stands was granted by the city in 1877 for a Confederate memorial.
A $10,000 reward has failed to coax the statue's return.
The African-American mayor of the majority black city has declined to revoke a building permit held by the Friends of Forrest.
"We thought it would be good for tourism. Our Civil War and Civil Rights history brings a lot of people to Selma," said Steven Fitts, a local historian and member of Friends of Forrest.
Civil War and civil rights history are juxtaposed in Selma. Protestors were killed there in 1965 during a march from Selma to Montgomery that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday" and sparked the Voting Rights Act. Before the Civil War, the city was called the "Black Belt of Alabama" because of its rich soil.
Fitts said the riverfront town was saved by Forrest during the war when, as a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, Forrest and his mounted troops kept the city from being burned by the Union army. After the war, he is credited with founding the Ku Klux Klan and was its first leader.
"Hundreds of people, thousands of people were killed in the South by the Klan. Why allow a statue of a domestic terrorist?" Sanders asked.
Fitts disputes Sanders' view of Forrest's record, claiming the one-time slave trader disbanded the Klan after it became violent. "She just wants one-sided history," he said. "I don't think she has a right to extinguish anyone else's history. There is no reason that one has to exist without the other."
(Editing by David Adams and Toni Reinhold)