By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - A Florida high school whose name commemorates a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group with a history of lynchings and other violent acts against blacks, is to be renamed, officials said on Monday.
The Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida, where more than half the students are black, will change its name from that of the Ku Klux Klan's first grand wizard from the start of the next school year in August.
A new name will be proposed in January.
"We recognize that we cannot and are not seeking to erase history," said Constance Hall, a board member for the Duval County school, which was founded 54 years ago.
"For too long and too many, this name has represented the opposite of unity, respect, and equality," Hall said in a statement.
With its roots in the U.S. Civil War era, the Ku Klux Klan has long been associated with hooded, white-robed night riders who menaced blacks with cross burnings, lynchings and other acts of violence.
The honoring of Confederate heroes and emblems has been a divisive issue in the United States, with proponents saying it pays homage to regional history and opponents saying it amounts to racism.
Memphis, Tennessee, in February this year dropped Confederate names from three city parks. One was named after Forrest, a slaveholder before the Civil War and a general during it.
The Florida name change comes after incidents that sparked racial tension in the southern U.S. state.
In July, white former community patrol guard George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges in the 2012 killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in central Florida.
Also last year, a federal lawsuit alleged civil rights violations in a west-central Florida school district after two black women who scored well on an adult skills test were accused of cheating.
Omotayo Richmond, who moved to Jacksonville from New York, wrote in a Change.org petition that garnered more than 160,000 signatures in support of changing the school's name that doing so would go toward healing "so much racial division" in Florida.
"African American Jacksonville students shouldn't have to attend a high school named for someone who slaughtered and terrorized their ancestors one more school year," Richmond wrote.
The 1,300-student public school, which became racially integrated in 1971, had voted some five years ago to keep the name, but those officials had been replaced, the petition said.
(this story has been corrected to fix spelling of organization's name to Ku Klux Klan)
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson, editing by Elizabeth Piper)