Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial

moijefferson-davis-portrait

This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue.  Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.

As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

UDCTN1900
UDC members in Jackson, Tennessee. 1900.

Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.

Lost Cause Jeff.
Lost Cause Jeff.

Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.

The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.

And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.

In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.

The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.
The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.

How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?

In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.

Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.

 

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This is the South, NOT the Confederacy

As the government shutdown dragged on, journalists everywhere, on the left and the right, raised the level of their rhetoric in search of what they believed to be the appropriate scapegoat for their wrath. The American South, it turned out, was one of their favorites.

Enough of this.
Enough of this.

The Washington Post’s Colbert King offered a sardonic editorial in which he used the metaphor of the Confederacy to describe today’s Tea Party.  Over at Salon.com, Stephen Richter of The Globalist wrote that the shutdown was a reminder that the Civil War never ended.  Richter argued that “the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts in American society” and makes the analogy that “Southerners and white conservatives everywhere” fear that offering healthcare to Americans is akin to “freeing the slaves.” Of course, the article would not have been complete without illustrations of the Confederate battle flag.

Well, thanks for nothing.

The quagmire in Washington, DC, cannot be explained by simply tossing it into the lap of the South since just as many states outside of this region are being represented in Congress by members of the Tea Party caucus. When Ari Berman wrote in The Nation that the GOP has a “white southern Republican problem” by noting the high numbers of southerners in the Tea Party caucus, he failed to address the reality that the shutdown would have been impossible if only GOP conservatives from the South were involved.  The fact is that this southern faction has co-conspirators across the country. (See the list.)

Not only do these comparisons perpetuate the idea of a monolithic South, it keeps alive regional divisiveness (to say nothing of continued stereotyping) as the comments section of these articles attest. It also ignores the changing demographics of the region, which over the last few decades has included a considerable migration of people from North to South.

Moral Monday protest
Moral Monday protest

More importantly, this Neo-Confederate rhetoric does nothing more than embolden Tea Party leaders and their acolytes, while at the same time it undermines the efforts of southern progressives. All the anti-South commentary illustrated with battle flags damages any inroads that are being made through grassroots efforts like those of the Moral Monday protesters here in North Carolina who are doing their damnedest to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire.

The real power struggle is not inside the Beltway, but in individual states. Conservative Republicans have gerrymandered districts to insure their power, but southern progressives in the state are not taking it lying down.

Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for Texas Governor
Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for Texas Governor

Sen.Ted Cruz (R-TX) may still be a Tea Party darling (and a shoe-in for Joseph McCarthy), but State Senator Wendy Davis is offering a change to politics as usual with her candidacy for governor. And in Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is off to a strong start to replace Republican Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate.

The point here is that progressives nationally need to support southern progressives. (Apparently, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) agrees.)  It makes no good political sense to dismiss an entire region as a “lost cause” behind the drumbeat of Civil War rhetoric.

What’s happening in Washington is not a result of the return of the Confederacy. It might make good hay to allude to the South as the “Old South” or to suggest that it lacks the diversity (and by suggestion, education) to accept “modernizing shifts,” or insinuate that all southerners are conservative.  But this kind of commentary only serves to inspire southern conservatives, while placing yet another obstacle in the path of those seeking change.

Yes, conservatives appear to have a stranglehold on the region, but throughout the South there are strong progressive voices that need to be heard. So here’s a novel idea: rather than bolstering conservatism in the South by pointing fingers to its Confederate past and discouraging progressive voters, which is what the Tea Party wants, how about shining more light on candidates and grassroots efforts and give Progressivism a fighting chance?

And, by the way, I live in the South, NOT the Confederacy.