To the Editor:
Over the last several months of testimony given before the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street names, many chose “history” as their primary community value for the preservation of the memorials and street signs just as they are. The basic argument is that the memorials and signs convey only respect and regard for the Confederate soldiers and their leaders who fought bravely and died or returned from the war, and therefore they must not be “vilified,” nor their history “sanitized.”
For others, however, myself included, who give great weight to “diversity” and “inclusion” as primary values, and who believe it’s impossible to honor the confederates without honoring the confederacy, those symbols convey a very different message. They are reminders of a very ugly period of racism, prejudice and division in our nation’s (and city’s) history. Many would certainly acknowledge that our city’s ancestors did fight bravely for the Confederacy, however they would be quick to add that they were nonetheless fighting for a regime, led by Jefferson Davis, committed to white supremacy, racial purity and slavery.
And no matter how well a few revisionist historians have managed to cover the misdeeds and crimes of the Confederacy under a banner of the “Lost Cause,” its true raison d’etre was and remains the real enemy of those who champion greater racial and ethnic harmony and integration.
I confess, however, after sitting through the testimonials of more than 50 witnesses over several meetings, and scrolling through scores and scores of on-line statements provided to the Ad Hoc group, I began to see less “black and white” and more shades of “blue and gray” in the issues. I became less of an abolitionist as I came to more fully appreciate the complexities, legalities and confounding impracticalities associated with moving the Appomattox statute and renaming more than 200 streets.
The one issue, however, where I remain steadfast in my conviction that a change must be made relates to the Jefferson Davis Highway signs. We must not be distracted by those who argue that any change amounts to “rewriting or erasing history.” The focus must not be on the past but rather on the culture and values we wish to honor today and for the future.
I am not saying that any one who opposes any changes whatsoever is bigoted or prejudiced. But I am singling out Jefferson Davis’s bigotry, beliefs and actions as toxic and abhorrent to our city’s present values and expectations for the future and therefore totally unworthy of continued honor.
“Every generation” David Brooks wrote, “has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture.” To those who wish to “root out” a “weed of prejudice” in our midst, let’s begin the journey by replacing every street sign in the city that bears the name of the president of the Confederacy with the name of an individual whose life has been the embodiment of inclusion and diversity – Bill Euille, the first African American mayor of the City of Alexandria.
Richard E. Merritt