Know Your Racist History: ‘Jumpin’ Jefferson Davis

By Darrell Roberts

The common debate between TV pundits, letters to the editor, social media, and of course–user comments to every article written on the removal of Confederate statues is often easily dismissed by one side a petty example of “PC” run amok.

(TIP: the user comments are a great way to gauge the pulse of “real” America).

‘They’ often contend, “Taking statues down can’t change history!”

‘They’ would be correct, history can not be changed by simply removing inanimate figures.  However, upon further examination, the history ‘they’ refer to is not the same history associated with the Southern “Participation Trophies.”

No, my friends.  In many instances, the Confederate statues have little to nothing to do with celebrating the rebel warfighters.  It may be often described in code words such as–“Southern heritage.”

REMINDER: Many of those who love the Confederate statues are now apt to tell others to “get over” Trump’s election victory.  ‘They’ also say, “Know your history!”

Challenge accepted.  But those who would say such a thing, often fail to truly understand the complexity of history.  To them, it may be a simple (pun totally intended) black/white narrative.  However, any historian (from a novice to an expert) will attest that history is not only complicated–it’s messy, open-ended, and the narrative is rarely a black/white picture–and more various shades of gray.

A Basic Understanding From 1860-1900 

Beginning in late 1860, eleven states would officially declare their secession from the Union.  In 1861, the America’s bloodiest war would start and rage on for four long years. The war pitted the North against the South and more Americans would die in this “Civil” War than World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and last but not least Afghanistan–combined.

In the history of America, nobody has killed more Americans than their fellow Americans.  That is an important fact worthy for all to always remember.

After the war ended, Jefferson Davis, The President of the Confederate States of America, was imprisoned and he would remain in prison for the next two years.  During trial preparations, Davis was offered an opportunity to post bail and he did.  But Davis had no intention of facing the charges against him–so, he fled the country.  Davis would stay abroad until after President Johnson pardoned him from prosecution in late 1868.  One may think that Jefferson Davis would have been grateful–but few stories ever go as planned.

The Influence of Jefferson Davis

In 1881, Jefferson Davis would publish his first (“The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”) of many books.  In “The Rise and Fall…,” Davis would declare the North were hypocrites, offer virtuous justification to the Confederacy, and defend the morality of slavery.  Davis would declare that the slave-owners had brought “arts of peace, order, and civilization” to the mostly content, if not grateful, slaves.  Davis also took the opportunity to demonize General William T. Sherman for his “March to the Sea.”  Davis accused Sherman of having issued an “inhuman order” and the “cowardly dishonesty of its executioners was in perfect harmony with the temper and spirit of the order.”  

During the remainder of his life, Davis would continue to write numerous pro-secession, pro-Confederacy books with his final written work “A Short History of the Confederate States of America” being published shortly after Davis’ death in December 1889.  

Davis’ writings would be primarily popular across the South–where it inspired a rise of many of the pro-Confederacy, pro-secession, anti-Northern, and anti-Sherman views that still persist even today.  

In 1865, the South surrenders and a “Reconstruction Era” follows. This period requires a mass transformation of the American system.  The nation had to reconcile the damage sustained during the war.  The South had to rebuild and revamp their entire way of life to include adjusting the end of slavery.

From 1865 to 1870, Three Amendments were ratified to the Constitution (13th, 14th, and 15th).  In shorts, these “Reconstruction Amendments” focused on abolishing slavery, citizenship rights, protections under the law, and voting rights.

Coincidentally, in 1866, a group against granting “Reconstruction” rights–the Ku Klux Klan is formed.

In the aftermath of these Constitutional Amendments, local and state laws began popping up across the Southern states which would initially be referred to as “Black Code” but would later grow and become infamously known as the “Jim Crow” laws.

Origins of “Jim Crow”

 Jim Crow is not a real person.  The law stems from a character made famous by a white actor performing as “Jim Crow.” As part of his performance, the actor would appear in blackface and dance as he sang “Jump Jack Crow.” The minstrel did not write the original song, it had been around in various forms for years.  However, the legend holds that the performer developed his Jim Crow character after an encounter with a disabled slave.  This routine made the character famous and the lyrics to the song would be added for years after. 

The Jim Crow laws included such things as separate schools, train carts, water fountains, bathrooms, etc.

In 1896, these segregation laws were deemed Constitutional in a US Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.  Not only did these laws separate the races they also focused to disenfranchise and discriminate against minority voters through methods of legal intimidation, literacy tests, and poll taxes.

What does this have to do with Confederate monuments?

A 2016 report from the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center shows a timeline of when these Confederate monuments were built.  The data shows that starting shortly before 1890 a rise in new monuments is evident but after the 1896 Supreme Court ruling declared segregation as legal–those numbers would begin to rapidly rise.

As the Southern Poverty Law Center 2016 report states, “[T]wo distinct periods saw significant spikes. The first began around 1900 as Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society after several decades of integration that followed Reconstruction.”

A Quick Recap

After America’s bloodiest war, the nation need to be reformed–old wounds healed.  However, the issue of free slaves in former slave states created a quagmire that had to be addressed.  The United States government attempted to do so through the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. But resistance to this attempt gives birth to groups like the Klu Klux Klan.  Also, Jefferson Davis’ first and subsequent books provide fuel to justify not only Southern secession but also for the institution of slavery while also demonizing the hypocritical North.

All these ingredients mixed with the endless American argument of State vs. Federal rights result in new local and state laws aimed at suppressing the newly gained rights of minorities.

The purpose of this series is to accurately place into context socially significant events that surrounded the rise of the Confederate monuments.  This short synopsis is in no way all-inclusive of the full history–but that is why all should read, research, and discover for themselves.

The next examination in “Understanding Your Racist History” will pick-up around the beginning of the 20th Century and highlight topically significant events to provide a greater understanding of the history associated with the rise of the Confederate statues across the United States.

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