As Confederate statues, battle flags, and historic names topple from public spaces, one of the most enduring symbols of the nation’s white supremacist past remains. A new video by Durham-based band The Pinkerton Raid seeks to draw attention to the issue in “a tribute to the fighters for racial justice.”
Each day, motorists commute along the Jefferson Davis Highway, which stretches for thousands of miles across the United States. Built during the same period as the monuments that are being pulled down across the South, the highway is named after the Confederate president who led the Southern states’ failed effort to destroy America over the right to profit from the enslaved bodies of Black people. Today, it starts in Virginia and runs through the Carolinas—passing near Durham as U.S. Route 15—before winding down into Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and then veering west into Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, and California.
The 1910 plan for a transcontinental highway to honor a traitor was yet another odious effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC’s sponsorship of the highway happened between 1877 and the early 1920s, a time that Black historians, including Rayford Logan and John Hope Franklin, described as the nadir of the country’s race relations. Reconstruction was sabotaged by white terrorist lynchings, the end of the North’s support for Black civil rights, Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the rewriting of history that recast the Confederacy’s immoral quest to perpetuate slavery as a noble Lost Cause.
A former News & Observer staff writer, Jesse James DeConto is also an accomplished songwriter and musician in The Pinkerton Raid, with bassist Jon Depue and drummer Scott McFarlane. In 2018, DeConto was covering the downfall of the Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill for The New York Times. That year, inspired by the ongoing protests taking place in the Triangle and across America, The Pinkerton Raid released “Jefferson Davis Highway” on its fourth album, Where the Wildest Spirits Fly.
DeConto had written the song the year before, following two seminal events in the anatomy of America’s volatile racial landscape. One was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The second was the tearing down of the Confederate statue in front of the historic courthouse in Durham. The video is timed to mark the third anniversary of the widely divergent causes.
The video, by Chapel Hill filmmaker Ye Tun, celebrates the activists “who were fighting to remove the memorials to white supremacy,” DeConto wrote in a press release. “Most of the video footage came from the people’s uprising after the senseless murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.”
DeConto first noticed the highway when he had a part-time job as a church musician in the country outside Durham. The sign’s meaning in the crosscurrents of social change resonated with him and served as an epiphany.
“I was driving every week to lead people in songs of love, peace, and justice, and I was traveling a road named for the leading defender of slavery,” DeConto wrote. “It was just too much cognitive dissonance, a kind of hypocrisy baked into the system, right down to the asphalt.”
After a brief introduction to the history of the Jefferson Davis Highway—“a 3,000 mile monument”—the song begins with DeConto playing the opening guitar chords, giving way to a montage of protest images here in the Triangle and across the country.
Main Street’s named for the president
Who commanded the Confederates
To defend them Dixie Pharaohs
Against the armies of the Lord
Main Street’s got a monument
For the fighters, for the cause
Gotta tear it down like that battle flag
‘Cause the war is over now…
We ride the Jefferson Davis Highway,
To sing in God’s own country.
The protests that erupted after the police murdered George Floyd are the video’s visual leitmotif. There are also images of Dylan Roof being taken into custody after he was charged with the mass murders of the Black worshippers at a Charleston church, where he had just finished praying with them. There’s footage of activist Bree Newsome pulling down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds, protesters moving forward in a swirl of tear gas, and the split-second moment when the statue in Durham crashed to the ground.
At one point, DeConto is walking down U.S. 15, armed with his guitar and singing for justice. There’s anger for the police killings that don’t seem to stop, and there’s big love for freedom, justice, and equality. The video ends with an aerial shot of the long-overdue assertion that Black Lives Matter, rendered by a group of artists in a burst of bright colors on Tryon Street in Charlotte.
“There’s so much sadness, pain, anger and terror in violent policing and these monuments intended to keep people down,” DeConto wrote. “But there’s so much joy and beauty in these masses of people marching, kneeling, speaking, singing, dancing and making art. The solidarity prevails even as our own government uses its power against the people.”
Watch the premiere of the video below and visit The Pinkerton Raid’s Bandcamp page to purchase the song. The band intends to donate proceeds to racial justice organizations such as BYP100 for the month of August.
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