Local Democrat dinner renamed

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County Democrats have joined a growing number of their counterparts around the nation in renaming their annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner, a move that severs a historical link with two early presidents who owned slaves.

The dinner held Saturday in Front Royal bore the names of Kennedy-King in honor of the partnership between President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the effort to end legally sanctioned racial discrimination.

Chairman Tom Howarth said the party’s leadership made the change unanimously in response to racial tensions arising from shootings involving police and unarmed blacks, the shooting deaths of black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white gunman and other incidents.

Howarth explained the decision was motivated more by respect for the Kennedys and King than a repudiation of the much-debated legacy of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, both of whom played major roles in building the party that evolved into the modern day Democrats.

“For all the contributions of Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Jackson, they weren’t killed in the prime of their life like these people,” Howarth said, alluding to the assassinations of King and the Kennedys.

Some Republicans in recent years have argued that King was a member of their party, although there are no voter registration records to indicate his party affiliation, he never definitively declared himself a Republican or Democrat and never formally endorsed any candidates. King had an up and down relationship with the Kennedys, and John Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. But King was a strong and consistent critic of Barry Goldwater, an opponent of civil rights legislation and Johnson’s Republican opponent in the 1964 presidential election.

The Jefferson-Jackson dinner has been a common event among state and local Democratic parties for generations. But both men’s honored place in history has been challenged in recent years over their ownership of slaves. Jackson also presided over the forced removal of Native Americans from several southern states – the notorious Trail of Tears in which 4,000 out of 15,000 died.

Conservatives, who are more commonly associated with the Republican Party, have cried political correctness and rushed to defend Jefferson and Jackson while Democrats have renamed their annual statewide fundraising dinners in Iowa, South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Connecticut and Missouri. New Hampshire’s Democrats were the latest to join the renaming list only a few days ago. The Democratic Party of Virginia has retained the Jefferson-Jackson label so far for its annual dinner.

Stephanie Vaughan, head of the Winchester-Frederick County Democratic Committee, said her organization didn’t have an annual fundraiser until two years ago and hasn’t even settled on a consistent name for it, but Jefferson-Jackson has not been among those in the running.

“We’re going to probably fluctuate between honoring our excellent Democrats in the area and using our own organization’s name for it,” Vaughan said. “I, for one, do not want to use Jefferson-Jackson because I thought we could just honor people closer to our area and more historically recent.”

Luther Santiful, the chairman of the Shenandoah County Democratic Committee, said his party has also chosen to use the simple name of the party organization for the annual dinner.

“We have never named ours after anybody,” Santiful said, adding that it was “understandable” that other party organizations are replacing Jefferson-Jackson.

“In today’s environment, people are beginning to understand things that were done a long time ago, and we have an opportunity to correct that,” Santiful said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.