Your View: Change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway

Your View: Change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway

By Richard E. Merritt, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
I became intensely interested in the deliberations of the city ad hoc advisory group on Confederate memorials and street names after learning that of the eight white residents who addressed the group at its meeting in February, every one of them spoke against renaming the streets and moving the “Appomattox” statue.

So I, who am also white, went to the group’s April meeting and argued to change the names of all the street signs, especially the ones honoring the president of the Confederacy, and ship the “Appomattox” statute either to the Museum of the Confederacy or the new Nation- al Museum of the African American History and Culture.

City council directed members to consider community values and ideas, but offered no guidance as to which or whose values should be considered. The city’s strategic plan cites diversity, history and culture as core values. Can those values be accommodated or reconciled when it comes to deciding what to do about the statue and the street names?

I believe that where one stands on these issues depends heavily on how one answers the question: “Is it possible to honor the confederates without honoring the confederacy?”

My view is that it is not possible to do so; these memorials may have been more reflective of community norms and aspirations when they were created, but they are totally antithetical to the cultural and community values embraced by most Alexandrians today.

Over the last several months, those giving great weight to “history” as the primary value argued that the memorials convey only re- spect and regard for the Confederate soldiers and their leaders.

But for those who favor diversity and inclusion, those symbols convey a very different message; they remind many of us of a very ugly period of racism, prejudice and division in our nation’s history. Many would argue that although our city’s ancestors fought bravely for their state, they were nonetheless fighting for a regime, led by Jefferson Davis, committed to white supremacy, racial purity and slavery.

And no matter how well a few revisionist historians have managed to cover the misdeeds and crimes of the Confederacy under a banner of the Lost Cause, its true raison d’etre was and remains the real enemy of those who champion greater racial and ethnic harmony and integration.

But after sitting though more than 50 witnesses over several meetings, I began to see a lot more shades of “blue and gray” and less “black and white” in the issues.

As I came to better understand the complexities, legalities and impracticalities associated with moving the statue and renaming more than 200 streets, I relaxed my position.

But I remain steadfast that a change must be made regarding the Jefferson Davis Highway signs. I am not saying that anyone who opposes any changes in the memorials is bigoted or prejudiced, but I am singling out Jefferson Davis’s own bigotry, beliefs and actions as toxic and abhorrent to our city’s values and expectations for the future.

We should replace every street sign in the city that bears the name of the president of the Confederacy with the name of an individual whose life has been the embodiment of diversity and inclusion — perhaps Bill Euille, the first African American mayor of Alexandria.