For example, there’s the imminent departure of Supreme Court Justice John P. Stevens and the consequent rare opportunity for President Obama to name a second replacement to the Big Bench.
All of you grousing about the prospect of continuing to work past the traditional retirement age should note that when Mr. Stevens steps down from his gig, he’ll be 90. Having a dietitian for a wife is plainly a good thing.
To give you an idea of the span of this life, when Stevens was born, Woodrow Wilson was president, Prohibition had just been effected but women did not yet have the right to vote. He was 55 when he was nominated to the Court in the aftermath of Watergate, and he will retire as the fourth longest-serving justice of all.
The significance of his departure can be measured by the GOP’s response, which seems to be unilateral opposition to anybody Obama might name to replace him. Not that he’s named anyone yet, of course.
Stand by, though, for a circus bigger than Barnum’s when he does, and the ringmaster will be our very own Jefferson B. Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will be Peanut’s job to lead the blocking of any individual who might be remotely construed as a liberal replacement for Stevens, and if that comes down to an unprecedented filibuster of the President’s nomination, the radical Republicans at the core of our national malaise will not shirk from turning history upside-down.
John Stevens was not exactly an odds-on choice to become a liberal firebrand. Nominated by Gerald Ford to replace a Justice, William O. Douglas, who was one, Stevens was a child of privilege, a corporate lawyer with no particular ideology coloring his pre-Court legal career. He was of a species that is endangered, if indeed it exists any longer: the moderate Republican. He sought consensus among his fellow justices and acknowledged that the Constitution, to serve an evolving republic, should be construed as an evolving document.
Take time to review his accomplishments and try to imagine anyone on the roster of possible replacements who could even approach his standards. We should be concerned that, as Jeffrey Toobin observed in The New Yorker, “When Stevens leaves, the Supreme Court will be just another place where Democrats and Republicans fight.”
Another curious fight has escalated out of history lately, based on a decision by Virginia’s new Republican governor to proclaim April Confederate History Month and to ignore mentioning slavery among the reasons why there were Confederates in our history in the first place. Though the governor apologized later, the hooraw he stirred up has scarcely subsided among those who delight in making stink. Public discourse is starting to get cluttered up again by those who must insist that the Civil War (which many in this category prefer to gussy up with titles such as The War for Southern Independence or The Recent Unpleasantness) was not about slavery at all, but about states’ rights or nullification or maybe disadvantageous cotton tariffs. We are beset by pronouncements by the likes of Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor, suggesting that drawing attention to the attempted diminution of slavery is “trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly.”
Here in Alabama, where every month is Confederate History Month and state employees still get the day off for Jefferson Davis’s birthday, we tend to be more sanguine. Heck, Bob Riley even mentioned slavery straight up in our state’s official Confederate History Month proclamation. Most of us have come to terms with the fact that our ancestors’ insistence on defending the right to traffic in human lives was a big cog in the creaky machine that was the CSA. I’d like to think our intellects are broad enough to accept that a Black History Month and a Confederate History Month can co-exist, separate but equal, on our calendars.
Then I happened upon a quotation in the current issue of The Alabama Confederate from Chaplain Len Patterson, asking the theological question, “if God is on the side of what is right, true, Christian, and Godly, and we know that He is, then, why did the South lose? There is one, and only one, possible answer, and to me it seems obvious. It’s not over!”
It’s gonna be a long sesquicentennial.
Only six years after that war supposedly ended, a little town in Jefferson County, located at the intersection of coal, iron ore and limestone, was officially founded. The history of Birmingham over the ensuing 139 years has been raucous and intriguing, which you might not know because there’s never been a museum dedicated to recounting that saga.
That all changes next Thursday at noon, when The Birmingham History Center, a 3,500 square-foot gallery at 1731 First Avenue North in the old Young & Vann building, opens to the public.
When we wrote about this project last year, we saw only a space and some great expectations. Since then, experts from Studio LaPaglia in North Carolina have come in to give form to the space, which is sure to become a must-see stop for residents and visitors alike.
Big art will impress, but it’s the artifacts of the city that will intrigue. The Birmingham-Jefferson Historical Society maintains 412 separate collections containing 8,200 artifacts, but curator Marvin Whiting is always on the lookout for more of those. As he explained on The Center’s website, “What is an artifact? Anything fashioned by human hands. What makes it valuable to us? If it helps tell the story of Jefferson County and its people.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnest. Send your comments to email@example.com