A historical marker in a Memphis park about Nathan Bedford Forrest (WMC-TV)
MEMPHIS (NBC) -- The renaming of three Confederate-themed parks in Memphis has spurred foes - including a purported Ku Klux Klan leader known as the "Exalted Cyclops" - to lash out against what they say are attempts to erase history. Others, however, maintain such symbols and monuments represent racism and have to go.
The Memphis City Council, fearful of intervention by state legislators, voted late Tuesday to approve changing the name of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park. Confederate Park became Memphis Park and and Jefferson Davis Park, named for the president of the Confederacy, was renamed Mississippi River Park.
The vote was 9-0 - seven African-American council members and two white council members voted for the changes -- with three council members abstaining and one council member absent.
Forrest Park for years has stirred up emotions. It contains the grave of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry leader who traded slaves before the war and went on to become the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the infamous hate group that carried out a merciless campaign of lynchings, church fires and other terror against African Americans as well as other immigrant groups.
During the war, troops under Forrest's command notoriously were accused of slaughtering Federal black troops after the Battle of Fort Pillow. The "Fort Pillow Massacre" became a rallying cry for the Union, according to historians.
"The parks are changed. It's done," Councilman Lee Harris, told The Commercial Appeal. "We removed controversial names and named them something that is less controversial."
Harris told Reuters, "We are becoming a city that is inclusive and respectful ... Those names were dividing rather than uniting."
Memphis is just over 63 percent African-American, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.
The honoring of Confederate heroes and emblems - such as the flying of the Confederate flag - has been a divisive issue in the South for years, so the Memphis vote surely doesn't end the debate.
"They're trying to get rid of history. They're trying to rewrite it," Katherine Blalock told the Appeal after the vote.
And in an interview with WMC-TV, a man calling himself a KKK leader known as the "Exalted Cyclops" -- he refused to reveal his true identify and said to call him "Edward" -- said he was calling all fellow klansmen to join him in the "largest rally Memphis, Tennessee had ever seen." He said they would rally in the former Forrest Park.
"It's not going to be 20 or 30," Edward said. "It's going to be thousands of klansmen from the whole United States coming to Memphis, Tennessee."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the Klan, all four of the known Klan groups in Tennessee are small and fairly disorganized. So, it was unclear if such a large rally was even possible.
Still, the city's top administrator, George Little, said that critics, including the KKK, were free to protest.
"Should they do so and gather lawfully, then we wouldn't get any more involved with that than we would with any other group," Little said.
The move by the Memphis council was meant to counter efforts in the Tennessee legislature to preserve Confederacy-related names.
One of the sponsors of a bill that would ban renaming of historical parks and monuments in the state told The Commercial Appeal that he would not seek to retroactively have the names of the three parks in Memphis restored but would seek to preserve Confederate history elsewhere.
"We've got monuments on the Capitol grounds that I wouldn't have approved of putting there but they are there and they are part of our history, State Rep. Steve McDaniel said. "Changing names or removing monuments could have the appearance of trying to re-write history."