An Alabama state scholarship program honoring Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson has run into a stone wall of opposition from black legislators.
State Rep. Alvin Holmes said he plans to introduce a bill abolishing the Alabama Stonewall Jackson Memorial Fund when the Legislature convenes in February.
“It´s not the job of the taxpayers of Alabama to fund anything in remembrance of those who tried to overthrow the U.S. government and maintain the institution of slavery,” said Mr. Holmes, a Democrat, who said the measure would have the support of the legislative black caucus.
The scholarship´s backers have no intention of surrendering, however. They argue that the fund teaches students about the state´s heritage and history while providing aid for higher education.
“Thomas Jonathan Jackson and Robert Edward Lee were two of the greatest military leaders in history,” said Murfee Gewin, a longtime scholarship judge. “They were men of the finest character. I would maintain that anybody would benefit from studying the lives of these two men.”
Mr. Holmes doesn´t buy it. “This is to preserve their history, and their history was to have slaves,” he said.
The debate is the latest chapter in the decade-old conflict over Southern symbols such as the Confederate flag. Some argue they have no place in state government because they represent a system that supported slavery, while others say they stand for regional pride and heritage.
The Legislature appropriated $20,000 to establish the scholarship in 1955, shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared public school segregation illegal. Part of the reason was to send a signal to federal authorities.
The fund offers college scholarships of $1,000, recently increased to $2,000, for high school seniors who write a 1,500-word essay relating to the Confederate general´s life. Recipients are expected to repay the money within five years of graduation.
Rising college costs may pose a bigger threat to the program than the black caucus. A thousand bucks doesn´t go as far as it did 1955, and the fund is at risk of falling into disuse.
The scholarship committee receives just a handful of applications in most years, and last year it received none, said Debbie Pendleton, assistant director of the state Department of Archives and History.
Most students write standard biographical essays about the Southern general´s life rather than expressing an opinion on whether he deserves his place in history. Almost all of those who apply receive the award, she said.
“Unless the essays are really awful, we generally award scholarships to anyone who applies,” Miss Pendleton said.
Since 1989, 53 students have received the scholarships. The committee doesn´t ask the race of the applicants, but Miss Pendleton noted that at least one past winner planned to attend a traditionally black college.
One papper in the state, the Decatur Daily, recently came out in favor of abolishing the fund, calling it an “anachronism.”
“In 1955, a student could go a year to college on $1,000, which gave the fund a measure of legitimacy. Today, it´s hardly worth the paperwork to get it,” said the July 20 editorial. “Keeping the fund alive perpetuates a past we would be better off not honoring.”
Mr. Gewin disagreed, arguing that some students will stockpile smaller scholarships to fund their education. “It may be only $1,000, but that´s $1,000 more than they had the night before they got it,” he said.
A lobbyist for the state´s Eagle Forum, Mr. Gewin said he doubted the Legislature would have the votes to kill the program.
“There´s no support for it. This is a bunch of people simply grandstanding,” he said. “There´s no great outcry. It´s not going to pass, and the governor´s not going to sign it if it did. The best thing these politicians could do is to get behind the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Fund and get us some help.”