Thursday, June 6, 2024

The hollow malevolence of Jefferson Davis

  Even Jim Crow Alabama couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for Jefferson Davis.

  When an Alabama House representative filed a bill in 1900 to make his birthday a holiday, the Birmingham Post-Herald called it “an event which the general public does not remember and has no wish to be reminded of.”

  “Vast numbers of Southerners do not place their faith in Jefferson Davis as a figure in history, and very few of them do so much as remember him except when they see his name in the newspapers,” the newspaper said.

  The bill passed despite — or because of — this inertia, a few months before white planters in the Black Belt committed massive fraud to deprive Black Alabamians of their constitutional rights.

  And so Alabama offices were closed Monday to honor a man who, along with other members of his class, went to war to ensure that some Americans had the legal status of animals.

  Which is the only reason we would ever remember him. Because as a person, Jefferson Davis isn’t that interesting.

  That doesn’t mean he’s unimportant or insignificant. All government leaders influence events and leave an archive for historians to analyze.

  But it says a lot about Davis as a historical character that Lost Cause propaganda, which shamelessly jammed halos on murderers, struggled to transform the leaden soul of the Confederate president into a golden legend.

  You can put him on a pedestal, like Abraham Lincoln, but the marble will have a lot more life and warmth than Davis ever did.

  And the arcs of their lives are much different. Lincoln rose out of poverty — one of our few presidents to do so — and showed a capacity to grow and change throughout his life. His writing carries profound reflections on faith and democracy in a style that at its best echoes Shakespeare and John Bunyan. He could laugh at stories, and himself.

  That was beneath the dignity of Davis, a replacement-level oligarch. His older brother set him up on a plantation and loaned him money to purchase enslaved human beings. He ended up holding hundreds of men, women, and children against their will and was happy to murder his fellow countrymen to keep them there. He made deeply racist statements, often rooted in religion, to justify this oppression.

  All of this, plus leading a white supremacist state, is enough to consign Davis to villainy. But don’t forget that Davis was bad at his job. He was hypersensitive to slights; showed no aptitude for finance and promoted generals who did not deserve the honors. (Davis made Braxton Bragg — maybe the worst general of the Civil War and certainly the most unpleasant — his military adviser.)

  After the war, he published a 1,500-page book about his failures that relentlessly complained about Black Americans having a brief share in their governance and ended with a statement that the deaths of over 620,000 men showed secession “to be impracticable, but this did not prove it to be wrong.”

  It’s an embarrassment that we honor this racist traitor a week after remembering all the Americans who died in this nation’s wars. Davis helped dig many of those graves.

  In some ways, I understand why Davis’ holiday survives any efforts to get rid of it. The Confederate president created a mold for Southern politicians.

  A man who emerges from privilege, whose entire public life focuses on fortifying its boundaries.

  A man who rises thanks to an unbending alliance with power, not any innate political talent.

  A man who sees cruelty and uses his office to explain it as divinely ordained.

  A man who demands a level of respect that he refuses to extend to others.

  It’s familiar. But it’s not worth celebrating.

  It’s doubly embarrassing that we commemorate Davis when we can’t make Juneteenth — honoring American perseverance amid American horror — a state holiday. There are many, many Alabamians who passed through that ordeal more worthy of remembrance. Like Martha Bradley of Mount Meigs, who told an interviewer in the 1930s about abuse she had witnessed and endured, and her own resistance (which once included attacking an overseer with a hoe).

  In recent years, we’ve found more places in the state to remember the people worth remembering, like Birmingham’s civil rights district and Montgomery’s memorials to the victims of slavery and lynching.

  Unfortunately, we also have the “First White House of the Confederacy,” where Jefferson Davis lived briefly in 1861. Our state government not only bought the house in 1920 but moved it from its original location to a spot near the Alabama State Capitol.

  It was a thin gilding of heritage that couldn’t cover the hollow malevolence of Davis. But it reflected the values of a regime that violently upheld the feudal arrangements of contemporary Alabama.

  And as long as Alabama continues to honor Davis and other white supremacists, it will tell the world that its values haven’t really changed.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. A 2024 Pulitzer finalist for Commentary, his work has also won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector.

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