Cutting through the southern half of the country, the Jefferson Davis Highway serves as a reminder that the fight over Civil War memory took place not only in the statues dotting parks across America, but in the very infrastructure of the nation itself. The highway is an asphalt monument to false equivalency, designed to balance the Lincoln Highway in the North with a Confederate rival in the South. It reveals the extent to which activists in the early 20th century embedded their defense of the Confederacy in the growing infrastructure of the country.
The origins of this road system date to 1913, when the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) unveiled their plans for a coast-to-coast highway in honor of the rebel chieftain. The project was intended as a rival of sorts to the then-recently announced Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, which was backed by Northern capital. Not to be outdone by Yankee entrepreneurs, the UDC sketched out a Southern analogue that would stretch from Arlington, Va., to San Diego — what writer Erin Blakemore recently called a “superhighway of Confederate veneration.” The sectional animosities of the Civil War era thus lived on in the mapping of America’s first national highway systems.
The time was ripe for such a massive monument to Davis. As the Daughters of the Confederacy went about promoting their highway, historical revisionists had sparked something of a white Southern renaissance. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” hit theaters, reducing African Americans to crude caricatures while portraying the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of white society. Despite NAACP protests, the film was a runaway success, even earning a screening in the White House. Later that year, the KKK reorganized at Stone Mountain, Ga., and soon chapters began popping up across the country.
The South was rising again — in theaters, in vigilante organizations and, as the Daughters of the Confederacy hoped, through transcontinental infrastructure.
Yet the highway ultimately fell short of its architects’ ambitions. Although the UDC claimed that their road ran the length of the country by the early 1920s, the maps of the period gave conflicting reports. Certainly no present-day U.S. road atlas will list the Jefferson Davis Highway as the continuous thoroughfare that the Daughters of the Confederacy had originally envisioned.
The reasons are complicated, but they stem from attempts to systematize America’s road network in the mid-1920s. By that point, private organizations like the UDC had designated more than 250 named trails across the country. For motorists attempting to navigate the United States, this was a dizzying array of routes. In response, federal and state officials replaced the names of all interstate roads with a new numbering system. The Jefferson Davis Highway thus became U.S. 1, U.S. 15, U.S. 29, U.S. 80, and U.S. 90, among others. Similarly, the Lincoln Highway was superseded, primarily, by U.S. 80.
But because individual states still controlled the roads that passed through them, the UDC and other private organizations saw an opportunity. By lobbying state governments, the Daughters of the Confederacy could literally put Jefferson Davis back on the map. And these cash-strapped governments in need of new infrastructure, especially in the South, welcomed tributes to the old rebel president.
The fruits of those lobbying efforts, carried out over several decades, can be seen in dozens of Davis Highway markers across the country, and in long stretches of road that still bear the Confederate president’s name.
The Jefferson Davis Highway, for instance, runs through part of Virginia and then along the entire length of North Carolina and South Carolina. A number of markers line the roads of Georgia, while a long portion of the highway cuts through the heart of Alabama. Texas alone contains more than 20 markers to Davis’s road.
West of the former Confederate states, the Jefferson Davis Highway continues. Parts of the I-10 through New Mexico still carry the name, as does a stretch of highway in Arizona. In California, Davis Highway markers can be found in several municipalities. The Daughters of the Confederacy extended the highway system as far north as Washington State, where Route 99 was named for Davis in the 1930s. In 2016, the state legislature and transportation commission finally renamed the road in honor of a black Civil War veteran.
Had he lived into the 20th century, this is precisely the sort of infrastructural undertaking that Davis himself would have spearheaded. As a U.S. senator and secretary of war, Davis was one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for a transcontinental railroad during the antebellum period. He lobbied aggressively for a railway that would run through the Deep South and into California. Through railroad construction, Davis hoped to bind the slave South and the Far West and to extend the cotton economy to the Pacific coast. Abolitionists aptly dubbed this imagined railway “the great slavery road.”
Davis, of course, never got his great slavery road. But in the extensive highway network that bears his name, Davis’s 19th-century vision received a 20th-century reboot of sorts. Taken together, the numerous segments of the Jefferson Davis Highway represent one of the signal accomplishments of Lost Cause revisionism, an enduring tribute to rebellion. This is a Confederate monument that spans the continent.
Yet the sprawling nature of the highway exposes pressure points for anti-Confederate activists to target. In Arlington, the highway’s eastern terminus, county officials are seeking to remove Davis’s name from their local thoroughfare. At the highway’s original western terminus of San Diego, a plaque to Davis was removed just last week. Also last week, one of the highway markers in Arizona was tarred and feathered — clearly by someone with a flair for historical shaming rituals.
The most famous repurposing of the highway, however, occurred well before the recent white supremacist riot in Charlottesville. In March 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led protesters on a historic march along a 54-mile stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway between Selma, Ala., and the state capital of Montgomery — where Davis himself had established the first White House of the Confederacy roughly a century earlier. When the march ended, tens of thousands of people gathered around the Capitol building to hear King’s vision for a future free of racial injustice.
“The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience,” King proclaimed in one of his most lyrical and hopeful speeches. “I know you are asking today: How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long. … Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Yet vestiges of the old racial order that the Confederacy fought to preserve proved more resilient than even King himself could have expected. Three years later, he would be shot dead by a white assassin.
And the road that he and others marched along a half-century ago in their quest for civil rights? It’s still the Jefferson Davis Highway.