Depending on one’s perspective, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, is either a hero or a traitor — worthy of honor or deserving damnation.
Admittedly, I’ve never had any admiration for Davis or most of the other Confederate leaders who waged war against this country.
But, as I wrote in 1997, I did come to respect Robert E. Lee when I learned more about him that year during a visit to his burial site in Lexington, Va., where I sat in on a memorial service commemorating the 127th anniversary of his death.
Growing up in Texas under Jim Crow, I certainly didn’t appreciate all the statues and symbols of the Confederacy that adorned courthouse squares and statehouse lawns in those days.
Yet, I had no visceral desire to see them tarnished or destroyed.
In 2000, when again there was heightened controversy over the Confederate battle flag, I took a trip to Austin specifically to see in what context heroes and emblems of the Old South were treated, from the Capitol to the University of Texas at Austin mall, and from the Texas Supreme Court building to museums between Fort Worth and the capital city.
On the university’s great mall there were statues of Davis and Lee, but there also were statues of George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, and a recent addition of Martin Luther King Jr.
Since then, statues of Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez have been added to the mall.
For years there have been debates about whether it was appropriate that the Confederate images remain, since they were a reminder of slavery and were placed on the campus at a time when the university was an all-white institution that didn’t admit black students.
Davis particularly has drawn the ire of the local NAACP and some UT Austin students who have demanded his statue be removed.
More than once the statue has been defaced, most recently earlier this month. That incident followed a vote in April by the student government calling for removal of the larger-than-life bronze image of Davis.
The vandal or vandals wrote in red letters on the base of the sculpture: “Davis must fall” and “Emancipate UT.”
The student government’s resolution has been sent to the university administration, which is not likely to act anytime soon as it is in transition, with a new president set to take office next month.
Students at UT Austin, and those in the larger community, should use this as a teaching moment. They should not be destroying history or art — they should learn from them.
As explained in a university statement, reported by Alexandra Samuels of USA TODAY College, there is a definite context for the Davis statue on campus:
“The statue dates to the close of World War I. Jefferson Davis was juxtaposed with a statue of Woodrow Wilson and they were designed to show that the American effort in World War I brought the final reunification of the nation after the rupture of the Civil War.”
It ought to be studied and even debated in that context.
Perhaps there ought to be a plaque somewhere near the images to explain that, as was suggested by Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at the university.
And as they study the man, they should concentrate on learning more about him before and after his presidency of the Confederacy.
He was more complex and accomplished than that single chapter in history that many now despise.
Davis’ service in the U.S. military and in Congress ought to be explored.
And, yes, it must not be ignored that he was charged and indicted for treason and spent two years in prison but was never tried for the crime.
It’s also interesting to note that he was offered the job as president of the new college that would become Texas A&M, but he turned it down.
Students, don’t destroy. Learn.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.