From the Washington Redskins to the Jefferson Davis Highway

When the NFL team in Washington DC takes to the field this Sunday, they will still be called the Redskins. It seems that the team's owner just can't let go of that racist name, even at the request of the National Congress of American Indians and a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision canceling the team's trademarks as a consequence of the name being a "government-defined racial slur." Racism and a history of genocide of Native Americans are all buried in our history and, for many of us, our unconsciousness.

Now if you are at FedEx Field in Landover Maryland where the NFL's Washington DC team plays, you can drive along Redskins Road (that name could be changed by the county) to Sheriff Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Highway. That little tour gives us a sense of America's progress in racial dynamics. But if you just keep going west for a few miles, crossing past our nation's capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and over the Potomac River, you get to a major thoroughfare, the Jefferson Davis Highway. That's right, within a mile of Lincoln the Emancipator you get to drive along a road named for Davis, the slaveholder and president of the Confederacy.

Doesn't that seem odd and confounding in a country which waged a civil war 150 years ago to end slavery? If you are in Germany, you see no memorials to Hitler. Instead, you see memorials, big and little, on sidewalks, railway stations, and in museums, to the victims of his hate, to the Holocaust, to the Jews and Social Democrats and gay people and gypsies and mentally and physically handicapped people murdered by the Nazis.

But if you tour the South, you will see memorials to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest (a Confederate general who massacred black union soldiers and led the Ku Klux Klan), and many other confederate leaders. In Richmond, Monument Avenue celebrates Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. There is no mention that they fought for the permanent institution of slavery.

In Missouri, right near Ferguson, you can celebrate the Confederacy at Sterling Price Days (Price was governor, slaveholder, and Confederate general), Jo Shelby Days (Shelby was one of Missouri's largest slaveholders, organized a terrorist pro-slavery militia in "bleeding Kansas," and was another general in the Confederacy), and Secession Day. In Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee you can participate in official celebrations of Jefferson Davis' birthday, the surrender of Confederate forces, or Confederate Heroes Day. When you are in Alabama, you can stand by the gold star on the steps of the Capitol Building in Montgomery where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office for Presidency of the Confederacy.

All these events, these places, these namings, honor the "Southern Cause." That's supposed to give it a sense of righteousness. So let's look at the Southern Cause. First, it was a Southern Cause for whites only. And secondly, it was a Southern Cause focused on the plantation economies and slave-holding of the elite in the South, including Jefferson Davis, who owned over 100 slaves on his cotton plantation. Davis bought slaves, sold slaves, and had slaves beaten. Davis said, "African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing." That institution of evil was indeed what secession was meant to perpetuate.

Until Americans, especially white Americans, and especially Southern white Americans, are able to face up to American slavery as one of the most horrific crimes against humanity and until we all understand that secession was the attempt to embed this crime permanently into the economy, politics and culture of America, we are never going to overcome our history. We should not celebrate Jefferson Davis, but his slave William Jackson, who was a spy for the Union army. We should celebrate his slaves who fled his plantation to Union lines to gain their freedom. We should be celebrating the 200,000 black union soldiers who fought for the Union and helped to put down the Confederacy. They are the real heroes of America.

We have come a long way from slavery and segregation and racism. But we have a long way to go. Driving along the Jefferson Davis Highway or watching the Washington Redskins, we are all participants in either the sin of creating myth out of murder and genocide, or in acknowledging and righting those wrongs. And because we are all complicated individuals living in America, we are often participants on one side and then the other in our country. But we will never realize equity until we own the reality of our past.