“Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?” Landrieu said. “Do you think she will feel inspired — and hopeful — by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential?”
Children, most of them black, walk past a statue of Robert E. Lee every day at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery. Across town, another predominately black student body attends Jefferson Davis High School. In 2017, in Alabama, there are public high schools named after men who thought people with darker skin than themselves were subhuman and needed to be slaves forever.
On Wednesday, with the eloquent and powerful words of New Orleans’ mayor still making national headlines, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law a bill protecting the state’s Confederate statues and memorials. They cannot be removed.
Removing the names of Confederate leaders from public schools is the correct and moral thing to do, and of that there is no doubt. Public statues and memorials commemorating soldiers who fought or died in the Civil War are offensive to many people, but schools named after leaders who believed people of color were inferior, and then sent thousands to their deaths to protect the immoral institution of slavery, are just downright malevolent and wicked.
Last year, I spoke to Montgomery mayor Todd Strange about high schools in his city named after principal Confederates. Here are his thoughts:
“History is a battleground, and there have been a lot of battles fought, and I’m a historian. My degree is in history, so I have a sense of purpose about history, and I just don’t know why you would change history by removing a name from a particular school.”
Yep, those are the words of an elected official indirectly defending state-sponsored oppression and institutional racism.
Some people, like present-day elected officials in Alabama, choose proudly to be on the wrong side of history. Then some elected officials, when judged by history, are treasonous war criminals. For example: Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. That the name of Jefferson Davis remains on a high school more than 150 years after the Civil War doesn’t remind us of anything other than how grinding institutional racism has held back a state.
The story of how a new high school in Montgomery came to be named after Jefferson Davis during the Civil Rights Era is heinous and evil.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April of 1968. A few months later, Montgomery opened a new public high school named after the president of the confederacy, a defender of slavery and a white supremacist.
Here is what Davis thought about blacks who fought against the South in the Civil War:
“The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity. There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers.”
Davis wrote that in 1863 and then again in his memoir after the Civil War. If you’re offended by the symbolism of Confederate statues, then how does the idea of black children having to attend a school named after Jefferson Davis strike you?
Symbols, they mean everything to our society. Some would say they’re more important than the people themselves. There are no high schools in Montgomery named after Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In Birmingham, there are no high schools named after Fred Shuttlesworth. Using a symbol to protest the federal government, because that’s all a defeated city government had left at that point in the Civil Rights Era, Montgomery named its first integrated high school after Jefferson Davis.
Every season, Jefferson Davis High School plays Robert E. Lee High School in football. The student bodies of both schools are almost 100 percent black. Originally an all-white school, Robert E. Lee High School predates the Civil Rights Era. Jefferson Davis High School is something different, though. The history and naming of that school, as Montgomery’s mayor surely knows because he’s a history buff, is nothing short of insidious. It is a clear example of institutional racism and oppression of people of color.
Go back to the late 1960s. Schools in the South were being forced to integrate, finally, after resisting for about a decade. In great haste to circumvent forced integration, politicians in Alabama created something called “freedom of choice,” which allowed students to pick and choose their schools. It was supposed to be a guise to keep schools “separate but equal,” but it backfired on the segregationists.
When a public high school was set to come online in Montgomery in 1968, black parents, naturally, wanted to send their children to the nice, new school. And they had “freedom of choice” to back them up on it. Montgomery County schools then challenged the legality of “freedom of choice” — a law Alabama’s own politicians had devised — to keep Jeff Davis segregated. U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., ruled that the school board must “honor the choices of all Negroes who want to go to the new Jefferson Davis High School,” according to an article from the Aug. 10-11, 1968, edition of The Southern Courier.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then upheld the decision.
Some 150 black students, emboldened by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., signed up to attend the new high school that first year in 1968. In a sense, they were fighting against Jefferson Davis’ Old South.
During the short existence of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis signed into law a constitution that prohibited its states from ever outlawing “negro slavery.”
“It says in the constitution that congress, the confederate congress, shall pass no law banning the importation of negro slavery into the Western territories,” said Dr. Derryn Moten, the chair of history and political science at Montgomery’s Alabama State University. “And so why do symbols matter? Because the man whose name is on the high school building supported and defended slavery. And, in my opinion, slavery was a moral evil.
“Why should we change the name? For the same reason they wanted to name that school Jefferson Davis in the first place.”
It only makes sense, these 49 years later, that the school should have been named Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial High School. King first gained notoriety as a religious minister in Montgomery before organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the integration of Jefferson Davis was part of his legacy.
Montgomery hated him for that, though, and they hated everything he represented. From the editorial board of the Montgomery Advertiser on the day after King was murdered in Memphis: “Assuming his assassin was white, we wonder what kind of mentality it was to think of this terrible act as a service to the South. Had King lived, he would have gone on to discredit his doctrine, a process which was already at work. Now he is martyred and the consequences of this foul and bloody deed are beyond reckoning.”
In the spirit of those hateful and vile words, Montgomery then opened the doors of a new high school named after Jefferson Davis. Maybe, on the 50-year anniversary of the school, they’ll finally get it right.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.