The symbolic battle over highway markers is part of a deeper struggle over American identity.
What and whom we choose to honor from the past are always statements about who we are and what we value in the present. And because it’s about the present, our choices often change as we change.
This week, the state House of Representatives voted to honor a black Civil War veteran from Snohomish by naming the Washington section of Highway 99 for him. If the Senate agrees, the gesture would be a particularly meaningful act because the highway was once named for Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederacy.
Washington wasn’t even a state during that war, but the whole of the country was touched by the conflict and affected still by the war of ideas that have troubled America since its beginning. Whenever struggles over values flare up, symbolism seems to take on increased importance.
There was a flurry of monuments erected to the Confederacy after Reconstruction, and another flurry during the Civil Rights Movement. And now we seem to be in the midst of a period of intense disagreement about American identity.
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We have two political parties that cannot abide one another’s values.
Some of the distaste for President Obama seems to transcend politics and gets personal, and maybe that’s partly because the presidency is symbolic. Having a black president sends a message that is at odds with some people’s beliefs about who should hold the office.
The man for whom the highway would be named, William P. Stewart, would be a symbol, too. Stewart fought for the Union in a segregated unit during the Civil War, but here in Washington the highway had once honored Davis.
There used to be two markers announcing that designation, one in Blaine and the other in Vancouver, Wash., placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Some state officials attended a 1940 dedication ceremony, but it was never made official.
The marker in Vancouver was quietly removed many years ago, but the one in Blaine was in place long enough for state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, to see it, be offended by it and to sponsor a bill in 2002 to have it removed and to name the highway for Stewart. That bill was also passed by the House, but it died in the Senate.
Dunshee recently revived the bill because the climate has changed. Last year, after a gunman enamored of Confederate symbolism and ideas killed nine black worshippers in a church in Charleston, S.C., many officials across the country began removing Confederate symbols from public property.
Last July, when the South Carolina Legislature debated removing the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds, Rep. Jenny Horne, a Republican and descendant of Davis, spoke out for change. Here’s a quotation from an Associated Press report:
“I have heard enough about heritage,” Horne said, her tearful voice rising to a shout. “I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, OK? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne. It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the Statehouse grounds.”
The Highway 99 markers from Blaine and Vancouver now sit in Jefferson Davis Park on private land in Ridgefield, Clark County, not far from Vancouver. A reader told me last fall that he can still see them from the southbound lanes of Interstate 5. But that past is going to continue retreating each time we go through a period of conflict over ideals and more inclusive ones win out.
There’s going to be a woman on U.S. paper money, the Interior Department changed Mount McKinley to Mount Denali in honor of Alaska Natives, and King County, originally named for an Alabama plantation owner, Vice President William Rufus King, became Martin Luther King Jr. County in 2005.
A story about the Monday vote on the highway quotes Dunshee saying, “I think it’s a statement about our values as opposed to what they were in 1941 at the height of the Jim Crow era.”
Symbols are also about what ideals we want to carry forward into the future, and if Dunshee’s legislation is adopted, we will have moved a little further toward a better one.