The State of Alabama celebrates the birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865, with an official state holiday on the first Monday in June. Government offices, courthouses, and state buildings are closed today for the holiday, which has been a source of tension for people of color and many other Alabamians.
The Montgomery Advertiser, a leading statewide newspaper, used the occasion of this “holiday” to highlight the brutality and trauma borne by enslaved people. Today’s edition shares the testimonies of nine formerly enslaved African Americans interviewed in Alabama by the Works Progress Administration in 1937.
Brian Lyman introduces the piece with straightforward background about Jefferson Davis:
Davis, who at one point owned more than 100 slaves, led a government resting on the principle of white supremacy. The Confederate Constitution contained a provision explicitly prohibiting any law “impairing the right of property in negro slaves,” and his vice president, Alexander Stephens, said the “cornerstone” of the new government “rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”
Davis was a racist. In a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1860, the then-senator from Mississippi said slavery was “a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves,” adding “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race by the Creator, and from cradle to grave, our government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.” After his inauguration as president of the Confederacy, Davis said “We recognized the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him. Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”
Alabama is the last state with a legal holiday honoring Jefferson Davis, who was not from Alabama, did not serve the state in Congress, and spent very little time in Montgomery before moving the Confederate capitol to Richmond, Virginia.
Three of Alabama’s 13 official state holidays honor Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee’s birthday, which is marked in January on the same day as Martin Luther King Day; Confederate Memorial Day in April; and Davis’s birthday in June. Alabama is the only state to have so many Confederate holidays on its official state calendar.
Only a handful of states still celebrate Confederate-related holidays, which were established in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In response to demands for equal rights, millions of white Americans made clear their determined, unwavering, and committed opposition to racial equality, integration, and civil rights. Confederate holidays, symbols, and monuments gained prominence as African Americans began demanding civil rights and equal treatment in the mid-20th century. This entrenched commitment to white supremacy inspired an often violent rejection of racial justice that is frequently overlooked.
In April, Representative John Rogers (D-Birmingham) introduced legislation that would split the combined Lee/King day, keeping Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday in January and combining Lee Day with Confederate Memorial Day. The bill failed to make it out of committee.