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Mississippi governor asked to denounce attempts to honor KKK leader

By Antoinette Campbell, CNN
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License plate to honor Ku Klux Klan
  • Confederacy group launches campaign to honor Ku Klux Klan leader
  • Mississippi NAACP chief calls Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest a terrorist
  • Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to honor Confederate generals
  • Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has not responded to the controversy

For more information on this story, go to CNN affiliate WJTV

(CNN) -- The Mississippi NAACP has called on Governor Haley Barbour to publicly denounce an attempt by a Confederacy group to honor a Ku Klux Klan leader, the organization said Monday.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans has launched the campaign to recognize Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest on a specialty license plate.

Forrest, a popular and controversial figure, is best known as a leader of the KKK, the white supremacist group known for terrorizing blacks in the South after the Civil War.

He is also praised and criticized for an 1864 raid at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, where hundreds of black Union Army members were killed during the war. The controversy over whether Forrest conducted or condoned the massacre is still a matter for heated debate.

Mississippi NAACP leaders feel a state-sanctioned license plate honoring a man with ties to the KKK sends the wrong message to people in the state and across the country.

"Any individual who was a traitor to our country and our Constitution should be treated as such," said Derrick Johnson, president of the state NAACP chapter.

Forrest was a "terrorist" whose acts were "immoral and unconstitutional," Johnson said. Honoring him or anyone who promoted racial hatred or violence would be offensive, he said.

The NAACP isn't alone in its protest against the SCV. More than 1,700 Mississippians have joined a Facebook group called Mississippians Against The Commemoration Of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest.

The group's website says they "are united in sending a message to the state government of Mississippi that WE WILL NOT STAND for the public glorification of one of the original leaders of the Ku Klux Klan."

The proposal by the Sons of Confederate Veterans seeks to honor Confederate generals.

"If we can't hold him up to where he's supposed to be, then nobody else is gonna do it," group member Greg Stewart said. Forrest is being "unfairly maligned," he told CNN.

Most historians agree that Forrest left the KKK after less than two years because the small pockets of groups were growing rapidly, were unorganized and violent.

Forrest felt "they had the right idea, but went about it the wrong way," said Mike Martinez, a part-time political science instructor at Kennesaw State University. Despite his short stint with the Klan, Martinez said Forrest's affiliation with the organization gave it credibility.

Stewart said Forrest was chosen to be recognized not because of his time with the KKK, but for his spirit and leadership during the Civil War.

His image is one in a series of five that will have to be approved on a year-by-year basis by the state legislature, Stewart said.

Other Confederacy symbols to be used on license plates are Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, the battle for Vicksburg, the battle of Shiloh and Confederate soldiers.

One image still under consideration that may surprise many people is that Holt Collier, an African American who fought for the Confederacy and eventually served under President Theodore Roosevelt as a bear tracker.

Collier is best known for the famous Mississippi hunt where Roosevelt refused to shoot a wounded bear. It became known as the "Teddy Bear" craze.

The SCV group has had a specialty license plate since 2003. The image of a small Confederate flag was used until last year when it was redesigned.

Money from the sale of the plates is used to repair state-owned historical flags.

Barbour has not responded to the controversy since it began making headlines last week. He spoke this weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and is said to be setting his sights on a run for the White House in 2012. He finished 15th in a CPAC straw poll.

A call to the governor's office from CNN on Monday has not been returned.