On Friday, most of the country was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But a small band of Sam Davis fans were waving Confederate flags out front of our State capitol. Now, let me be clear. Anniversaries happen when anniversaries happen. Friday was the anniversary of JFK's assassination. Sam Davis was executed on the 27th, 150 years ago. There's no grand conspiracy that lines the two dates up.
But the Sam Davis fans are supposed to be great history buffs. That's how they know about Davis in the first place, because they care about history. And they're supposed to have a nuanced understanding of history because nuance is the only way you get from "A dude was executed for being a spy against our nation" to "But he's a hell of a Tennessean." At least, nuance is the only path that gets good people from Point Treasonous Spy to Point Tennessee Hero.
So, here's some nuance. Dallas, before Kennedy was killed, was in the middle of a prolonged and ugly battle over Civil Rights and, as you might imagine, the bad guys' side had, among other things, a symbol Sam Davis would have recognized. That symbol, though lately of "heritage, not hate" fame was, at the time, being used as a symbol of hatred, specifically as a symbol of hatred of JFK and the Civil Rights movement.
Bill Minutaglio, the co-author of Dallas 1963, spoke to NPR about the situation in Dallas:
For some reason out in the heartland in the middle of Texas, really powerful people coalesced around this notion that Kennedy was a traitor and in fact was guilty of treason. And these weren't just folks who were idly thinking these thoughts; they were acting on them and forming organizations and movements to essentially overthrow Kennedy ...
These were the city fathers from every perspective, the leading preachers in town, the leading businessmen, the leading elected officials — the people who held the microphones, in a sense, on broadcast and in print media.
Here's the scene as the Kennedys landed in Dallas, taken from Dallas 1963:
A receiving line of local dignitaries is awaiting the Kennedys at the base of the steps on the airport tarmac. Mayor Earle Cabell’s wife, Dearie, presents Jackie with a bouquet of red roses. The original plan called for yellow roses, but every yellow rose in the state has already been spoken for, including the five thousand already set up at the Trade Mart.
The crowd is screaming so loudly that it’s hard for those in the receiving line to make themselves heard. As the president is greeted by Police Chief Jesse Curry, Kennedy leans in close and says:
“This doesn’t look like an anti‑Kennedy crowd.”
Others descending from Air Force One aren’t so sure. Their practiced eyes spot a few discordant notes among the welcoming signs: YANKEE GO HOME AND TAKE YOUR EQUALS WITH YOU and HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Another, referring to presumptive Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, reads LET’S BARRY KING JOHN. Most disturbing is the small, misspelled hand‑lettered sign on cardboard that reads YOUR A TRAITOR. One man standing high above everyone else is waving a giant Confederate flag.
As we know, these folks got beaten to the punch by Lee Harvey Oswald, but that doesn't change the fact that there were a bunch of people in Dallas who were looking to take down Kennedy and who were using the Confederate flag as a symbol.
Marching around the State Capitol on the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination carrying the symbol of the people who loathed him is, at best, terrible. I mean, honestly. Not a single person associated with the Sam Davis commemoration thought about how that would read? How incredibly disrespectful to the memory of Kennedy that is? According to the Murfreesboro Post, State Senator Douglas Henry was the keynote speaker at the Sam Davis gathering on Friday. He was in his thirties when Kennedy was assassinated. He should remember how that flag was used against Kennedy. Why couldn't they move Friday's commemoration to Monday?
This is the thing that drives me up a wall about Civil War venerators. We're supposed to respect their great need to be so deeply engaged with history that they must fly that flag. But they will not respect the whole history of that flag. They want history just as it suits them and we're all just supposed to ignore the rest.
Listen, I don't think any one of those assholes consciously thought "Woo, and now's our chance to symbolically flip the bird to Kennedy one more time!" If they had, I'd honestly be less bothered. It's that they get to be so thoughtless about our country's history and yet they still get to pretend like they're the great caretakers of that history. That's what I find embarrassing, for them and for our city, which, on the day of Kennedy's assassination, had the flag of the people who loathed him marching through our streets.