Democrats Consider Whether To Rename Jefferson-Jackson Dinner
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Democrats are re-examining one of their big traditions. The party holds big annual celebrations. They're called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinners. These events honor Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party. But these men are also known for something the party does not want to celebrate. And now even Democrats in Andrew Jackson's home state are weighing whether to change the name of these events. Here's our colleague Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Missouri, Connecticut and Georgia have dropped the names. Michigan Democrats are thinking. Tennessee is the site of Andrew Jackson's home, the Hermitage. Yet state party chair Mary Mancini has invited debate over whether to find a new name for an annual event.
MARY MANCINI: The Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner is traditionally the largest fundraiser for a state Democratic Party. Many states have used the two names, but because of our unique relationship with Andrew Jackson, ours has always been just called the Jackson Day Dinner.
INSKEEP: You must have been to a number of these dinners.
MANCINI: Yes, I have been to a number of them.
INSKEEP: What are they like?
MANCINI: Oh, they're great fun. You know, we've had speeches by Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Al Gore. They are celebration of all that it means to be a Democrat in Tennessee.
INSKEEP: There's the question. What does it mean to be a Democrat? Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, even if he wrote the words all men are created equal. Jackson was a war hero, credited with encouraging common people to participate in politics but was also a slave owner who led the removal of Indians from the South. Democrats were once an explicitly white party, now just as explicitly diverse.
MANCINI: I got to tell you, this has been bubbling under for quite some time. This is not just this particular time in history. But what has recently brought it to the forefront was the shootings in South Carolina and the use of symbols to represent an ideology and the idea that the Confederate flag is being used in a way that subjugates the very same people that were enslaved for over 300 years in this country. So the questioning of symbols has just really started to heat up.
INSKEEP: You know, when the Connecticut state Democratic Party decided to change the name of its dinner and get Jefferson and Jackson off of there, the conservative blog RedState wrote about this and used the word madness - the writer of the blog post did - and argued that this was just going way, way too far to try to erase parts of history that we find awkward.
MANCINI: It's so funny. I don't understand why people are afraid to have difficult conversations. That never made sense to me as a child, and it never - it doesn't make sense to me now, right? These are hard conversations to have, but we should have them.
INSKEEP: The experience of other states, though, makes this very interesting because it causes you to think about who you would name the dinner after instead. If I'm not mistaken, Missouri renamed its dinner in honor of Harry Truman, favorite son of Missouri, strong American president but also the only world leader who ever ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on anyone. I mean, it could be kind of tricky to find a replacement here, couldn't it?
MANCINI: Incredibly tricky, Steve. And you bring up a great point, one that since this conversation started has been brought up to me many times. You know, where do we go from here?
INSKEEP: Is this the fundamental question? Can a political party that gets a huge share of the black vote that relies on other minority groups for a huge part of its vote still be properly represented by the image of someone like Andrew Jackson? Is that the fundamental question?
MANCINI: That's part of the question, absolutely. The reason why we're having this conversation is because as a white woman, I think it's easier for me to say, I accept all aspects of Andrew Jackson. We can't as white women put ourselves in the shoes of a Native American now or an African-American now because our life experiences are very different. And so that's why when we have this conversation, we want to have it with everyone who has a stake in the Democratic Party. But again, I have to tell you that the majority of responses that I've been getting from all members of the party have been let's acknowledge it. Thanks for having this conversation. But let's keep the name, and let's keep it as a reminder of who we are, where we came from, and how far we have come.
GREENE: That's Mary Mancini, chair of the Democratic Party of Tennessee, speaking with our colleague Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.