How many of you know that today is Jefferson Davis’s birthday. How many of you even know or care who Jeff Davis was. Well, for those of you that are historically challenged, Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. In other words, he was Dixie’s equivalent to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. For those of you who may still view the Civil War as a long-time-ago kind of a spat among the states that sort of got out-of-hand, let me assure you it was the absolute opposite. The Civil War was every bit as brutal, nasty, and inhumane as the war this country fought against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during the 1940s. Today’s equivalent of over 6 million American lives were lost in that conflict 150 years ago, either on the battlefield or in abominable prisoner of war camps. And while atrocities were committed on both sides, Southern prisoner camps were especially despicable since Northerners held in captivity lived under conditions of unbelievable filth and disease, and were usually starved, beaten, tortured or just cold-bloodly murdered. Nevertheless many Southern states still continue to display the Confederate flag, and one state still celebrates Jefferson Davis’s birthday.
In Alabama today, state offices as well as many businesses will be closed in honor of the Confederacy’s first and only president. Jeff Davis was captured in 1865 and accused of treason, but was never tried in a court of law; and he was eventually released two years later. Just before his death in 1889, he advised Southerners that: “The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations.” But many, to this day, refuse to heed that advise. He is still memorialized throughout the South with statues, parks and highways, in places such as Georgia, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Virginia, and even Washington, D.C. But Alabama is the last state to to legislate that the first Monday in June will be set aside to celebrate Davis’s birthday. It should be noted that other Alabamians who actually made huge and beneficial contributions to civilized society such as Hellen Keller, writer Harper Lee, and blues musician W.C. Handy are not similarly commemorated. Such are the foibles of the human condition. I think the head of a local Alabama chapter of the NAACP put it best when he said that: “We’re supposed to be one nation under God. When people keep honoring the Confederacy, we are no longer one nation under God.”
So what has the U.S. accomplished in the 150 years since the end of that tussle among the states. First we had to endure another 100 years of semi-slavery for blacks better known as Jim Crowe. Strict segregation laws were established in the South that made it a crime for blacks to drink out of the same water fountain as whites, or use the same bathrooms, or sit at the same lunch counters. Blacks certainly couldn’t send their children to the same schools that white kids went to. When some protested how despicable segregation laws were, and that the federal Government should step in to rectify this abomination, the cry went out from Dixie for states rights. Southern states hammered home the point that the Constitution gave the states the right to enact segregation laws if they so desired. And by and large, the Feds did stay out of the South’s preoccupation with segregation. It wasn’t until the 1960s, with increased pressure from Northern freedom riders and greater militancy from black communities that Jim Crowism and resultant segregation in the South finally started breaking down. They were finally washed away in a tidal wave of righteous indignation.
One of the greatest friends, ironically, that civil rights workers had in the early 1960s was an Alabama sheriff named Bull Conners. Conners, as one can infer from his name, was a fierce segregationist who looked every bit the part. When civil rights leaders tried to de-segregate his town, Conners had the police turn gushing water cannons on the marchers. People were hurt by the velocity of the water coming out these canons; and those that weren’t injured were thrown into the local prison. Those scenes were shown on TV nightly news, which then enraged most of the nation, thereby speeding up the de-segregation process. John Kennedy, who was President at the time, often stated that what Bull Connors did for the civil rights movement was well beyond anything he could achieve as President.
One would think that by crushing Jim Crowe and segregation, the cry of “states rights” in legislative affairs would have been long discredited. But if one did think that, one would be dead wrong. Today, try to enact federal gun control laws and the NRA immediately begins to scream that such laws would be a constitutional infringement of states rights. States throughout the South and Midwest have already enacted severe restrictions on a woman’s right to have an abortion, under the banner of states rights. Despite the Supreme Court’s verdict in Roe V. Wade. And new ballot restrictions intended to intimidate minorities and the poor from voting have also become law, supposedly protected by “states rights.” The Republican Party, of course, has become the chief advocate for states rights, since it perceives itself to be the main beneficiary in upcoming elections. So one must presume that when the GOP takes control of Congress this year, and the Presidency in 2016, the states will have the power to enact whatever they damn well please, no matter how obnoxious the legislation may be.
In the the meantime, let’s raise a glass of champagne in celebration of Jeff Davis’s birthday. At least at the end, when he was on his death bed, he finally got it right.