Virginia’s McDonnell Declares Confederate History Month
Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman seem to have broken the story for WaPo’s Virginia Politics Blog:
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has quietly declared April 2010 Confederate History Month, bringing back a designation in Virginia that his two Democratic predecessors — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — refused to do.
Republican governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore issued similar proclamations. But in 2002, Warner broke with their action, calling such proclamations, a “lightning rod” that does not help bridge divisions between whites and blacks in Virginia.
This year’s proclamation was requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A representative of the group said the group has known since it interviewed McDonnell when he was running for attorney general in 2005 that he was likely to respond differently than Warner or Kaine.
“As I read it, this proclamation is more designed to get people to study the issue rather than simply being a tribute,” he said. “We would like everyone in the state to honor the sacrifice of the brave men who went out and died in battle. At the very least, we’d like them to study why they went out and did it. And I think the proclamation could be construed either way.”
The expand upon their report for the legacy edition:
McDonnell left out anti-slavery language that Allen’s successor, James S. Gilmore III (R), had included in his proclamation.
McDonnell said Tuesday that the move was designed to promote tourism in the state, which next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. McDonnell said he did not include a reference to slavery because “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”
The proclamation was condemned by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP. Former governor L. Douglas Wilder called it “mind-boggling to say the least” that McDonnell did not reference slavery or Virginia’s struggle with civil rights in his proclamation. Though a Democrat, Wilder has been supportive of McDonnell and boosted his election efforts when he declined to endorse the Republican’s opponent, R. Creigh Deeds.
McDonnell had quietly made the proclamation Friday by placing it on his Web site, but it did not attract attention in the state capital until Tuesday. April also honors child abuse prevention, organ donations, financial literacy and crime victims.
Matt Yglesias titles his post on the subject “McDonnell Moving Virginia Backwards, Celebrating Slavery and Rebellion” and observes,
It’s important to note that this isn’t simply someone going along with a longstanding abhorrent bit of symbolism that’s traditional in his state. Mark Warner, rightly, broke this tradition and refused to grant wink-nod symbolic affirmation of the idea of unleashing massive violence in defense of the principle that white people should own black people as property. Tim Kaine upheld the new status quo. And now McDonnell’s ondoing it, which is offensive on its own terms and will also raise the political cost to any future governor who wants to do the right thing.
I agree with McDonnell and SCV spokesman Brandon Dorsey that the legacy of the Civil War is complicated and I understand the desire to honor the sacrifices of one’s ancestors and to remind people that the war was about more than slavery and that, in any case, the men who fought it — on both sides — were motivated by other issues. Even in the north, the war was about Union, not abolition.
But proclaiming Confederate History Month, much less after it had ceased being customary, reopens old wounds while doing next to nothing to heal them. The classic Simpsons answer, “Slavery it is, sir!” is what people will remember about the war. And flying the Confederate flag and otherwise glorifying the war is simply offensive to most black Americans and quite a few others. And, as Hardy Jackson, as ardent a lover of the South as any man alive, taught me, it’s simply bad manners to go around hurting people’s feelings for no good reason.
Further, while I voted for McDonnell and generally support his policies, taking this action in the way he did was simply cowardly. If you’re going to issue a proclamation, then, damn it, have the gumption to Proclaim it. How does timidly posting it on the website and hoping no one will notice advance the stated goals? How the hell is it supposed to increase tourism or promote reading of history if no one knows about it?
As it turns out, a tremendous number of Civil War battles took place in the Commonwealth and Virginia has preserved many of the sites and has monuments to most of the others. There are dozens within day trip distance of me. And, of course, Richmond was the Confederate capitol during most of the war. And Virginia’s Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox, Virginia Courthouse (well, actually, at a nearby private residence). These places already attract quite a bit of tourism. If McDonnell wants to entice more visitors to come down and see these sites, I can’t imagine anyone would object. And doing so would be a much more productive use of his time.