Last summer, when C and I were driving through Kentucky on our way to the Smoky Mountains, we spotted a highway sign announcing, “Jefferson Davis Memorial Site – Exit 186”.
And I thought, “Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy? That Jefferson Davis?”
I found it bizarre in the extreme that Kentucky had a state memorial park dedicated to a man who was willing to torch his entire nation to maintain the institution of human slavery.
The U.S. Civil War has degenerated in our collective minds to the patina of nostalgia, at least among many white folk. Today, people called “re-enactors” recreate entire battle scenes in period costumes at state parks for the entertainment of tourists. We forget what a horrific civil war was fought over such a horrific institution as slavery. Historians calculate that more Americans died in our Civil War than all other American war-deaths combined over our 240 year history. And the number of black people murdered or lost to slavery runs into the millions – we will never really know the true number, as the facts about these crimes have been lost to time and neglect.
The Confederacy was created specifically to maintain a slave economy. The people who created the Confederacy renounced the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and formed their own country based on the racial supremacy of white landowners. The slavery system was maintained through state torture, murder, and terrorism. At the head of this government was Jefferson Davis. This makes Davis a slaver, a murderer, a traitor, and a terrorist. If he were alive today he would be an inmate at Guantanamo Bay, not the subject of a state park. What is even more disturbing to me is the thousands of people who visit his site each year. It strikes me as people visiting a historic memorial park dedicated to Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
It brings home to me how differently we see and understand things in life. Some people see Davis as a well-intentioned but misguided hero, a tragic figure the park’s website describes as “a reluctant secessionist”. I see him as a slaver, traitor, and mass murderer, intent on maintaining an empire every bit as obscene as imperial Rome.
Then I think about places like Ferguson and Baltimore.
Time yields new perspectives on old issues, and we can see how incongruous it is today to have a state memorial park dedicated to someone like Jefferson Davis, a man who stood for everything our nation stands against. Yet, today, there are a significant number of people who look at Ferguson or Baltimore and only see a beleaguered police department protecting society from lawless young black men by using unfortunate-but-necessary tactics. Simultaneously, others only see beleaguered young black men brutally victimized by a police force that acts more like an occupying army than a police force, simply to maintain the status quo of inequality. It has only been in the last 60 days or so that the latter perspective has been confirmed by the Department of Justice as the factual perspective. Unlike Davis, where it has taken us a century to see the man for what he was, we now know the municipal courts and police tactics of Ferguson and Baltimore for what they are – illegal and immoral.
We do not need to wait a hundred years or so before we can look honestly and forthrightly at Ferguson and Baltimore and see them for what they are, unlike Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. The facts are in on Ferguson and Baltimore. If we ever hope to move forward in this country, we need to be honest, at this moment in time, about race and police tactics in the U.S. Frankly, I would like to see the Jefferson Davis Park dismantled and turned into something more positive than a monument to a criminal, and I pray we dismantle the old oppressive systems and practices we sponsor through our criminal-justice systems so it can promote both peace and justice rather than continue to operate in a criminal fashion.