Steve Patterson: It’s time for Jefferson Davis and James Z. George to come home!

NEMiss.news MS in Statuary Hall, Washington DC
Mississippi's Statuary Hall sculptures, Jefferson Davis (l) and James Zachariah George
July 24th, 2020     Guest Authors

 

” The reason you will not say it is, when you say it, even to yourself, you will know that it is true.” –William Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying”

 

Almost fifty years ago I was privileged to serve on the staff of then one of America’s most respected and beloved statesmen, Mississippi’s Senator John C. Stennis. In that capacity, I often eagerly volunteered to guide groups of Mississippi school children visiting Washington DC on tours of the U.S. Capitol Building, the U.S.Supreme Court building and the Library of Congress. I would point out the beautiful works of art that adorn these buildings and highlight various historical events that had taken place at the different locations. I always enjoyed those days and delighted in the enthusiasm these young people had for learning.While I regaled these youngsters with both fanciful and accurate historical tidbits, I was constantly amazed at their knowledge and inquisitive nature. They had obviously done their homework in anticipation of their trip and were bright-eyed with amazement to finally see what they had been learning and dreaming about for months.

Among the most popular and thought provoking stops on these tours was Statuary Hall in the old House of Representatives chamber. Here stand two sculptures presented by each state, depicting people who made enormous contributions to the culture of the nation and of whom they are proud. Statesmen, musicians, social activists, scientists, and giants of arts and letters are among those commemorated here. Mississippi’s contribution to statuary Hall? Jefferson Davis and James Z. George.

Both bronze statues were placed in the Hall in 1931. Usually, I saw a large crowd gathered around Jefferson Davis, with white Southern children having their photographs taken. Children from other states were perplexed by the fact that a statue of the President of the Confederacy stood among these American giants. In those days, the groups of Mississippi school children I guided were ALL white. More than a few would tell me that a portrait of Jefferson Davis was on prominent display in the parlors of their own homes back in Mississippi.

On days when the Senate was not in session, I would take the group onto the floor of the Senate and show them the Jefferson Davis Desk.  I’d explain that it was the very same desk occupied by Senator Stennis at that time! In fact, the Senate seat once held by both Jefferson Davis and Senator James Z. George was then held by Senator Stennis.

As we know, Jefferson Davis served as President of the Confederate States of America (CSA) from 1861 to 1865. He represented Mississippi in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate prior to the Civil War. He had even served as United States Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857 in the Administration of President Franklin Pierce. How Davis went from such admirable service to the USA to being President of the CSA is explained, in part, by the fact that he owned several cotton plantations and at various times as many as 113 enslaved African Americans.

Although as late as 1859, Senator Davis powerfully argued against secession from the union, he steadfastly believed that states had the unquestionable right to leave the union. In fact, his farewell speech to the U. S. Senate after Mississippi left the union is considered by some to be a work of literary beauty that eloquently presents a case for ‘’States Rights.” Of course, the rights these southern states were most concerned with was their “right” to enslave black folks and maintain an economic system that deemed enslaved people real property. I vividly recall as late as the late 1970’s college students at Ole Miss committing the Davis farewell speech to memory and reciting it with all the oratorical flourish they could muster!

At the war’s end, Davis was indicted for treason and imprisoned for two years. He remained under indictment until 1868 when President Andrew Johnson issued a blanket Christmas Day pardon to “every person who participated in the late insurrection or rebellion.”

Mississippi’s other contribution to Statuary Hall, Senator James Z. George, was also a Confederate Mississippi politician. He was a leading proponent of secession and signed the ordinance of secession. You know, the one that stated Mississippi was “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”

Along with L.Q.C. Lamar, George also possessed what many in his day considered one of the most extraordinary legal minds in the South and perhaps in the entire country. Following the war, James Z. George served as Chief Justice of The Mississippi Supreme Court from 1879 to 1881 and as a United States Senator from Mississippi from 1881 until his death in 1897. As a Senator, George helped frame and lead the debate for passage of the Sherman Anti-trust Act and was among the Senate’s leading voices advocating for the creation of a cabinet-level department of Agriculture.

However, perhaps Senator George’s most lasting and despicable contribution to Mississippi and America came with his advocacy of a new constitution for the state, designed explicitly to disenfranchise black people and ensure white rule in every aspect of Mississippi society. The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 successfully did just that, and it was almost entirely George’s brainchild. Senator George brilliantly and successfully defended the 1890 Constitution in the U. S. Senate and before the U. S. Supreme Court. Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution soon became the model for other southern states and provided the legal foundations for “Jim Crow” laws that made racial discrimination institutionally legal for the next 70 years.

In a very real sense, Mississippi’s Senator James Z. George is Jim Crow’s father. Generations of PAIN for black folks and a lasting STAIN on Southern history was inflicted on America because of the brilliant legal theories and maneuvering of James Z. George. Yet, he still stands as Mississippi’s symbol in the nation’s Capitol.

As William Faulkner noted, some things are hard to say, hard to realize, hard to understand. The plain and simple truth is both Jefferson Davis and James Z. George were not only racists, they sincerely believed in the supremacy of the white race and, even more alarming, in the inferiority of all other races!

I believe both of these men, and most white people in the America of their day, North and South, held these misguided views and honestly thought those views were morally correct. It’s almost impossible today for us to understand that. I do understand. I also understand that these two Mississippians, under no circumstances, should be allowed to continue to represent our state in the eyes of the tens of thousands of people around the world who would daily tour Statuary Hall in our nation’s Capitol!

President Davis, Senator George, come home! Your continued service is an embarrassment!

My suggestion is that Jefferson Davis be retired to his Confederate Presidential Library at his beloved home, the “Beauvoir” mansion in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Two locations for Senator George’s Bronze statue’s final resting place leap to my mind. One is his well-preserved little law office in the picturesque town of Carrollton, or perhaps this work of art should be placed in the relatively new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, with a fitting title “Jim Crow’s Daddy,” just so people can look in the face of the man who authored that despicable system.

We get accustomed to things as they are and are stubbornly resistant to change. As a proud people, we Mississippians are set in our ways. This is widely acknowledged. We know who we are, what we stand for and pugnaciously proclaim we don’t care how others see us. As a state in competition for economic development with every other state and countries all over the world, common sense tells us those stubborn attitudes must change! We must put our best foot forward if we ever hope to attract industries, research facilities, tourist dollars and bring our state off the bottom of every economic indicator that has been studied for the last 150 years! Jefferson Davis, and James Z. George as our carved-in-stone representatives are an impediment to the progress we all seek!

I do admit that few are more resistant to change than I. I’m not one that shops around. I don’t even like rearranging the furniture. I’ve only had three barbers, two dentists, two doctors, and one accountant in my entire life. I buy my groceries and most of my clothes from the same stores I’ve shopped most of my life. Change does not come easily for me. Nonetheless, when change does come my way, I usually adapt quickly and begrudgingly admit that an improvement has taken place. I have come to realize that change is inevitable and essential to both growth and improvement in every endeavor. As with many things, Winston Churchill said it best: “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often.”

Our beloved state of Mississippi is in dire need of change, serious, well thought-out change. Not change for change’s sake only, but change that improves our much-maligned image in the eyes of the world. We need a makeover. Right or wrong, our image in the eyes of the rest of the nation and indeed the rest of the world is primarily focused on our racist past. We are thought of as a racist society with a troubled past and an unredeemed future! Tragically, we have defiantly resisted the truth of what this image has wrought and even refused to adapt to ever changing societal norms. Once we admitted that a change was needed, once we proclaimed that the rest of the world saw us in the wrong light, it became incumbent on us to portray a more inclusive, less obstinate image. As Mr. Faulkner said, now that we have said it, we know it is true! So let’s cultivate a new and more truthful persona.

We recently, to my surprise and delight, finally took an all-important first step toward improving our image by removing the Confederate battle emblem from our state flag. That change was long past due and has received accolades from an array of thoughtful quarters. Our image in the eyes of the world was greatly enhanced by that one simple act. A new flag, however, is only the first step towards rebranding our image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Presenting two new Mississippians for inclusion in Statuary Hall is the next logical step toward our much-needed rebranding!

Perhaps including heroic figures from our Civil Rights struggles should occupy one of our coveted spots in Statuary Hall. Make no mistake these were indeed struggles — struggles that were often life-threatening, and sometimes tragfically life taking! The state is filled with these brave heroes! Ida B Wells from Holly Springs, Medgar Evers from Jackson by way of Decatur,  Vernon Dahmer from Hattiesburg, Dr. Aaron Henry from Clarksdale, Amzie Moore from Bolivar County, and Fannie Lou Hamer from the Mississippi Delta are but a few of these brave souls!

I have often said no state can boast about their contributions to American culture with the same evidence as Mississippi. We have unparalleled artists in every genre.

Who else can boast of having a William Faulkner, a Tennessee Williams, a Eudora Welty, a Richard Wright, a Donna Tartt, a Beth Henley, a Margaret Walker Alexander, a Willie Morris, a Barry Hannah, an Angie Thomas, a Natasha Trethewey, a John Grisham, an Ellen Gilchrist, and literally hundreds of other Goliath’s of American literature?

And music? Mississippi is the birthplace of “The King of Rock and Roll,”or, as most know him, simply “The King” (out of respect to his dominance in most all musical genres), Elvis Presley. “The King of the Blues,” B. B. King, is a proud son of Mississippi, as is “The Father of Country Music,” Jimmy Rodgers, and “The First Lady of Country Music,” Tammy Wynette. Mississippi native, bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads in exchange for becoming the best guitar player ever. Perhaps the two most beautiful soprano voices ever heard at the Metropolitan Opera belonged to Mississippians Leontyne Price of Laurel and Elisabeth Greenfield of Natchez.

Southern church music was never the same after James Blackwood and the Blackwood Brothers from Ackerman came on the scene.

And, of course, no listing of Gospel would be complete without, ”Pop” Staples and the Staples Singers, Rev. C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), Rev. Cleophus Robinson, the entire Mississippi Mass Choir, and countless others!

And who is considered the best Jazz pianist of all time? You guessed it —  Mose Allison from Tippo, Mississippi!

Of course, we could ramble on and on about Mississippi musical artists and not even mention folks like Charlie Pride, Conway Twitty, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters! In fact, I recently came across an annotated bibliography of musicians that impacted American music the most. It was 289 pages long, and 201 pages were devoted exclusively to Mississippians! We are, indeed, as advertised, “The Birthplace of American Music,” which is a far superior distinction than the other things we are sadly recognized for birthing!

Mississippi Congressman, Bennie Thompson, and others have introduced legislation that requires the removal of all Confederates from Statuary Hall. It is scheduled to be voted on in the next several days. It’s likely to pass in the House of Representatives and stall in the Senate. Nonetheless, why should we wait? Let’s bring Jefferson Davis and James Z. George back home now.

The Mississippi Legislature can do it with a simple Resolution. The State Department of Education could get in on the act by prescribing a host of nominees to replace them and develop a school curriculum that teaches about these Mississippians who are worthy of commemoration. Perhaps at the end of the school year the school children could vote for two replacements. Imagine the excitement that would create and the goodwill it would foster in the eyes of the rest of the country.

Legend has it that on New Year’s Eve every year the statues in Statuary Hall come alive and dance throughout the capitol building in celebration of America. Imagine Mr. Faulkner or Mr. Wright preparing a short reading for the occasion, and Elvis and B. B. providing the music for the evening! My bet is Elvis would somehow work in his rendition of “American Trilogy,” and that would be just fine by me!

As “The King of Soul,” Mr. Sam Cooke of Clarksdale, used to sing:

“It’s been a long a long time coming, but I know a change’s gonna come. Oh yes, it will.”

More Patterson: https://www.nemiss.news/coronavirus-shadow-of-death/

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