Two years after racist violence in Charleston forced most of us to realize that the Confederate battle flag had long since decayed into a symbol of hate, racist violence in Charlottesville has hammered in the rest of that lesson: The same logic applies to statues, memorials and other public commemorations of the Confederacy that whitewash it as a noble but failed venture.
Arlington County exhibits less of this Lost Cause litter than most of Virginia, but one of our few examples may be the least worthy in the Commonwealth: our part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The name affixed to U.S. 1 from Interstate 395 to Alexandria and to State Route 110 from Rosslyn to I-395 has long been an embarrassing exercise in denial.
• The residents of what was then Alexandria County voted to stay with the Union by a 2-to-1 margin.
• Union troops promptly liberated the county at the start of the Civil War and turned much of it into an armed camp that saw no Confederate attacks; in the bargain, we got Fort Myer.
• Non-Virginian Jefferson Davis displayed neither battlefield genius nor courage during the war and was a lousy political leader. In an essay arguing for moving Confederate statues to museums and cemeteries, National Review editor Rich Lowry idly flicked Davis into the trash as “the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy.”
• This highway only got its name in the 1920s after a lobbying effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy–part of a larger effort to cement a narrative of white supremacy–that put forth Davis alongside Lincoln as “the two great leaders of the critical period of American history.”
• Lest we lose sight of the subtext here, the Confederacy started a war that cost the lives of 750,000-plus people and threatened to dismember the United States so its citizens could keep and abuse other human beings as property.
Arlington effectively backed away from this highway in 2004, when a reshuffling of Crystal City mailing addresses to match them with building entrances erased many Jefferson Davis Highway addresses–including the one of the apartment I shared with three friends after college. (For a while, Apple Maps was a dead-ender about this realignment.) Arlington also renamed a secondary road from “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” to “Long Bridge Drive”; FYI, the park later built next to the renovated street is great for plane- and train-spotting.
Renaming the highway itself, however, requires permission from Virginia’s General Assembly. The County Board put that among its 2016 legislative priorities, but our representatives in Richmond set that goal aside and wound up getting ignored on other issues.
The city of Alexandria, however, faces no such restriction and has started taking suggestions on what to call its portion of the road. And now, after Charlottesville, Arlington’s elected leaders seem more resolute.
Thursday, the County Board issued a statement solidly backing the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, with a softer endorsement of rechristening the county’s portion of Lee Highway. (I once saw Robert E. Lee in an entirely different category from Davis; I had read less at the time about his conduct and the greater cruelty of his troops.) Arlington’s school board, in turn, pledged to reconsider the name of Washington-Lee High School.
That leaves the General Assembly with a choice when it’s back in session, either in 2018 or in a special session that Governor McAuliffe could call sooner: Accept that the Confederacy’s losing effort doesn’t warrant a participation trophy for one of its weakest leaders on this stretch of concrete, or disgrace itself with racially-coded control-freakery. This is not an issue with many sides; there is one right side of history here, and Virginia had best place itself on it.