Since the monument honoring Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was unveiled in a city park in 2000, critics have called it a symbol of hate. Vandals littered it with trash, pelted it with cinder blocks and tried to pull it down with ropes before it was moved to a private cemetery. Finally in March, the bust vanished. A historical society called Friends of Forrest has offered a $20,000 reward for its return, and vowed to replace it with a new bust on a taller pedestal, guarded by an iron fence and a surveillance camera.

The fight continued this week as about 20 protesters tried to block construction of the new monument by lying in the path of a concrete truck as crews tried to pour a ramp. Late on Thursday night, the Selma mayor, George Patrick Evans, decided to halt the work until the city attorney could review the plans. Meanwhile, an online petition at asking the City Council to ban the monument has more than 69,000 signatures.

The dispute has revived thorny questions about race, history and identity, familiar territory in a city known for a landmark civil rights clash between marchers and the police in 1965.

The general is a contentious figure, even among historians. Monuments and statues honoring General Forrest are in dozens of cities; high schools in Tennessee and Florida are named for him; and even Forrest Gump, the fictional character in the novel and movie by the same name, claimed that his mother had named him for the general. But although General Forrest is recognized as a brilliant cavalry officer, he was accused of war crimes for allowing his forces to massacre black Union troops who had surrendered after the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864. Following the war, he joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and became its first grand wizard.

“Some people think he was one of the most successful military practitioners of the war, and say that trumps all else he did later in life,” said Brian Steel Wills, the director of the Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and a history professor there. “Others condemn him out of hand as evil incarnate and dismiss him. Of course, he’s far more complex than either extreme.”   ……