The challenge of managing the Confederate legacy in contemporary American culture is clearly ongoing, given that, for example, 138 public schools are still named after Confederate leaders.
The search for a solution, however, can be found in the story of a Jackson, Mississippi, elementary school.
Recognizing that any public space should be subject to public influence, Davis Magnet IB Elementary school will respect the democratically expressed wishes of its community and replace its homage to Confederate President Jefferson Davis with a name that honors former President Barack Obama. The change will take effect starting in the 2018-19 school year.
The key points of Davis Magnet IB’s triumph are the civic engagement that initiated the movement and the democratic process that executed the change.
Students, staff and parents submitted ideas to Davis’ PTA, and Davis students gave presentations on their top choices at a school assembly. Barack Obama’s name was then chosen via election by the school community.
All of this started with former Davis student Farah Jaentschke, who read a biography of Jefferson Davis for a summer reading assignment and expressed concern to her mother, Ercilla Hendrix, about the name of her school.
When the issue of Confederate legacy reached national attention this year, it was Hendrix who filed the petition that eventually resulted in the name change.
This method deserves attention because it teaches children from a young age that their voices matter and reminds adults not to lose faith in civic duties.
If repeated, Davis’ example would provide a fair and effective process by which Americans could instigate meaningful, and frankly overdue, change.
It is also worth pointing out that a reading assignment was initially responsible for Jaentschke’s interest in the issue. History books are the only place other than museums in which Confederate leaders belong, and literacy itself is a vital tool that empowers citizens to shape their lives and communities.
This combination of civic engagement and democratic process should be held up as a national standard not only for the process of renaming schools, but also for handling other Confederate representations such as statues and flags in public parks and government or municipal buildings.
Though my primary aim is to support the collective autonomy of individual communities to shape themselves, as Davis has demonstrated, I also firmly believe that the removal of Confederate representations from their place of honor would be the best result for any community in which those representations still exist.
Black students, who make up 97 percent of the Davis student body, should not have to attend schools that honor men who fought for their enslavement.
White students should not be encouraged to conclude that their communities put people like Jefferson Davis and the evils such names carry above the dignity and civil rights of black Americans.
Schools and local governments whose names, statues and flags still honor the Confederacy should follow the example set by Davis Magnet IB in Jackson.
This elementary school is paving the way for other communities to make a difference in their legacies.
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