Supporters praise him for offering to free 45 of his own slaves if they would serve in the Confederacy. They also claim Forrest was reluctant to divide families when he bought slaves.
Forrest died in 1877 and his body was moved to Forrest Park in the early 1900s. The tree-lined park about as large as a city block is just miles from the old Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
King's murder is a cloud that lingers over Memphis long after the civil rights leader was slain. Race remains an undercurrent in many aspects of daily life. Not until last year did the city name its first street for King.
This is not the first time Forrest Park has sparked acrid debate. Memphis officials, led by the city's black mayor, rejected an effort to rename it in 2005. Other cities in the U.S. have also wrestled with the issue of naming parks and buildings after Forrest.
In 2008, a majority white school board in Jacksonville, Fla., rejected an attempt to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.
Last September, the City Council in Selma, Ala. voted to stop work on a monument honoring Forrest at a city cemetery after someone removed Forrest's bust from the site. The apparent theft had led to protests by civil rights advocates not to replace it.
And, in December, Dixie State College in Utah removed a bronze statue of Confederate soldiers from campus.
Tennessee also has a state park named for Forrest and a modern-day statue of him in Nashville erected on private land.
Civil War historian Harold Holzer said that while he thinks Forrest was an "evil character," history is not served by removing references to the past in public places.
However, moving forward, more cities are likely to follow Memphis' lead, Holzer said.