Jefferson Davis celebration
Legacy still triggers a battle over history and symbols
By Julia Hunter, New Era Staff Writer
FAIRVIEW, Ky. — “Get ’em boys,” a man exclaimed from the crowd.
A thunderous blast, then another and another. Smoke filled the air. The wind carried the stench of gunpowder.
The crowd cheered.
There was no one to “get,” however. The men in gray uniforms fired simulated cannon blasts at an empty field.
Although everyone knew the outcome of the war the Confederate soldiers were re-enacting, they still cheered for the South, seemingly hoping the outcome would be different this time.
It was the first Saturday in June, nearly 150 years after the Confederate states lost the Civil War. Still, people disagree about what the Confederate soldiers were fighting for, and what Confederate symbols mean today.
If you tell H.K. Edgerton that, for many, the Confederate flag represents slavery and oppression of black people, he’ll tell you, “You’ve been talking to a Yankee.”
Edgerton will tell you his view of relationships between some black slaves and their white masters, he will tell you about the many slaves who, he said, stayed on plantations by choice.
The bottom line, he said, is that the Confederate flag, which he refers to as the “Christian cross of St. Andrew,” is an important part of his southern heritage that plays an undeniable role in the history of our country.
Many of the nearly 1,000 people who attended the 200th birthday celebration of Jefferson Davis this weekend at the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Fairview may have said they were there for just that reason.
The only difference is Edgerton is black. He is rare among Neo-Confederates.
Edgerton, who in 2002 marched from his hometown of Asheville, N.C. to Austin, Texas carrying the Confederate flag, said he hopes to expose what he believes are lies pushed by the media, Hollywood and civil rights groups.
“If you’re a southern person with any kind of sense, there is no way in the world you can equate (the Confederacy) with racism,” said Edgerton, a former president of the Asheville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
While Jack Glazier, a writer and professor of anthropology at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, believes the story of Jefferson Davis is an important part of history, he also believes that emblems, such as the 351-foot Jefferson Davis Monument, could represent a painful reminder of slavery and racial separation.
“On the southern side of the celebration of the lost cause, there is the idea that to have fought in a war that some consider a defense of hearth and home and to have done so bravely and with much sacrifice, that fact is ennobling and that is what much of the celebration of southern heritage is about,” Glazier said. “What some historians would say is the difficulty there is that it takes no account of the causes or consequences of those acts.”
Glazier, who has been writing a book about race relations in Hopkinsville for the past several years, said many celebrated the building of the 351-foot obelisk in the 1920’s by burning crosses.
“The southern cause that Jefferson Davis led is a sentiment that’s obviously not shared by the black community,” Glazier said. “They would see the emblems under which they were enslaved and degraded and held captive.”
Glazier pointed out that the park is one of only three state parks that are permitted to sell Confederate memorabilia.
“On the one hand, it is quite a legitimate historic site,” Glazier said. “It has quite a considerable historic interest, but there is also a very active — what could be called a neo-Confederate movement in parts of the U.S. — and I think the state is probably concerned with the possibility of the monument being a rallying point for sentiments that are not quite in accord with the 21st century.”
Mark Doss, park manager, said although this viewpoint was considered, nothing was done differently in preparation for the 2008 event. Nothing, except for the size of the annual celebration of Davis’ birth, has changed since the park’s opening in 1924, he said.
“We weren’t celebrating his life as the president of the confederacy,” Doss said.
Doss said the celebration was to commemorate a man who was a highly regarded and reputable leader before the Civil War, a man who was a strict constitutionalist.
President of the Kentucky Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Dr. Tom Hiter said strict adherence to the constitution was actually one of the chief ideas for which the South was fighting. He said this is something many tend to forget.
“Today we are seeing what they knew would happen,” Hiter said, referring to the original Sons of Confederate Veterans. “That is, that the Confederate soldier would be called a traitor, a rebel, all kinds of unsavory names.”
The South fought because it was being invaded, Hiter said, not because it was fighting for slavery.
Still, there is one undeniable fact, Glazier said.
“The experience of slavery is a dominant feature of our history and enslavement is symbolized by Confederate emblems,” Glazier said. “That, for one side, is significant.”
© 2008 Kentucky New Era