Civil War at 150: Jefferson Davis descendant keeps fighting spirit alive
81-year-old is chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Media/Public Relations Committee
By Jeff Gill
May 1, 2011
Nearly eight years ago, Gainesville’s Jeff Davis strongly advocated letting voters decide whether they wanted to keep the contentious 1956 Georgia flag, which featured the rebel emblem.
These days, as chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Media/Public Relations Committee, he is battling what he deems as attacks against Southern heritage, an attitude he likens to "cultural Marxism."
It seems that, despite health problems slowing his pace, Davis hasn’t lost the fighting spirit of his Confederate ancestors — including the most famous one, distant cousin Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
In a recent interview at his apartment off Thompson Bridge Road, the 81-year-old retired broadcaster talked about his extensive forays into politics and service organizations, as well as his keen interest in Civil War history.
He also talked about the North-South conflict’s sesquicentennial, a commemoration of Civil War events that began with shots fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, S.C.
"Political correctness has really worked on the Sons of Confederate Veterans something terrible," Davis said.
"There have been a lot of terrible untruths. I have wanted to find a way, without being hostile, to correct a lot of the images that have taken place throughout the country."
Images, he believes, that began in the 1970s, years after the Civil War’s centennial, when there was more of national movement to remember the "tragic event" that led to more than 625,000 war deaths.
These days, Davis believes, the accepted notion is that the South’s refusal to budge from slavery triggered the war.
"The biggest thing is to say the South was the leading advocate of slavery in the entire world, that the war was fought over slavery and nothing else," he said. "That’s the biggest lie that has been pushed."
The SCV doesn’t deny slavery wasn’t an issue, but there is so much more to the story, he said.
"Anybody who looks at the first two years of the war and what (President Abraham) Lincoln and his cabinet said — they all said ‘South, come back into the country. We don’t want to disrupt slavery. That’s not our purpose.
Our purpose is to preserve the Union.’"
Also, slavery began as an enterprise of Northern entrepreneurs.
"Slavery was a terrible thing, for all of us, and we all should ought share our responsibilities for whatever it was we did, but don’t lay it all on the South, because we didn’t start it," Davis said.
With his name well-known among Confederacy buffs, Davis also has spent much of his life researching his heritage.
The West Virginia native, born John Albert Davis, earned the nickname "Jeff" from friends and then his mother, making it stick for good. He’d go on to become "something of an expert" on his ancestor, including picking up on lesser-known facts, such as Davis adopting a black boy during his days leading the Confederacy.
Also, Jefferson Davis "was probably the best military mind in the country at the time the war was approaching," he said.
He was secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce between terms in Congress.
"He kind of did himself in, modernizing the U.S. Army in the 1850s," said Davis, whose grandfather also served in the prestigious "Stonewall Brigade," a group of raw recruits turned into a fighting machine by Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
Davis attended Gordon Military College in Barnesville before moving into a career that included journalism and politics.
In the 1950s, he befriended Vice President Richard Nixon, who later tapped him to lead his Georgia presidential campaign against the Democratic candidate and eventual victor, John Kennedy.
Active in civic affairs, Davis would go on to head the Georgia Jaycees and then serve as vice president at the Jaycees’ national and world levels.
In 2003, he helped form the Georgia Heritage Council "to pursue reform" of state government. The group came out advocating "strict enforcement of existing illegal immigration laws by state agencies" and opposition to "ethnic cleansing" of America’s religious heritage.
One of the most polarizing issues at the time, however, was Georgia’s flag, which had been changed in 2001 to incorporate a smaller design of the former flag that featured the battle flag of the Confederacy.
In a 2004 referendum, voters were given a choice between the 2001 flag and a new design that excluded the Confederate emblem. At the time, as today, many decried the rebel flag as a symbol of hate and racism.
The Georgia Heritage Council pushed for the 1956 flag, which featured the emblem, to be included on the state referendum.
"Southern Heritage is an integral part of both our country’s and Georgia’s Heritage," Davis said in a Sept. 30, 2003, news release.
Davis does believe there has been some respect given the Confederacy in recent times.
Last Memorial Day, President Barack Obama sent a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
"He was asked not to by a number of leading Americans," Davis said.
Also, "there is no more hospitable and cordial relationship between two organizations" than the one that exists between the Sons of the Union Veterans and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.
"It is something (they have) in common: Their forebears did what they thought what was right and they were part of Americana, whether they were North or South," he said.