The Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington may be Virginia’s least worthy Confederate memorial

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.

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History moves fast sometimes

I spent four years studying history in college, and the big takeaway was that progress is a slow game that requires the ability to get up after getting knocked down, over and over.

A slightly worn American flag flutters in a spring breeze.

The exceptions to that rule are rare and delightful. My freshman year, we watched Communism crumble across Eastern Europe so fast that one professor told us to put aside the assigned textbooks and instead read the paper each morning and come prepared to discuss the latest news from Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and beyond.

The past week in America has felt like that. Within a few days, the vile cruelty of the Charleston shootings finally awakened many Southern whites to the reality that the Confederate battle flag is far too stained by hate to deserve a place of honor on the people’s property. It and other salutes to the Confederacy’s war against the United States now look set to vanish from government facilities as fast as statues of Lenin in the Warsaw Pact’s client states.

(Note to Virginia: Now would be a swell time to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway. I’ve already e-mailed my state senator and delegate to say as much.)

And then on Friday, less than two years after throwing out the insultingly ill-named “Defense of Marriage Act,” the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law. This case of justice arriving like a thunderbolt, as President Obama said, could not have happened without decades of effort.

And yet: It came less than 11 years after Karl Rove made ballot initiatives against gay marriage part of a winning Republican strategy. It was nine years since a Virginia constitutional amendment banning any state recognition of same-sex unions passed the commonwealth by a large margin. It happened seven years after Obama stated his opposition to gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, and people like me didn’t think that was a huge problem. Not even a year and a half ago, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (who refused to defend the gay-marriage ban he’d voted for in 2006) defeated his opponent Mark Obenshain (who had not changed his mind about that now-defunct law) by only 907 votes.

Thinking about all that, I sent a celebratory e-mail to my wife with a single-character subject line: “=”