Va. Gov.'s 'Confederate History Month': Why Now?

I would never attempt to diminish the role the Civil War plays in the history of Virginia, whose capital, Richmond, was the capital of the Confederacy.

But I'm not sure I understand why Gov. Bob McDonnell decided, after an eight-year absence in the Old Dominion, to declare April as Confederate History Month.

It's not as if he was having trouble with his conservative base; I haven't heard a single supporter imply he was a faux conservative or, even more improbable, a RINO. It's not as if he needed to make this move to help his bid for re-election in 2013, because Virginia bars its governors from seeking a second consecutive term. I just don't understand why he decided to do it, and why now.

The mostly symbolic proclamation was initiated by Republican Gov. George Allen in 1997. But since 2001 — since the elections of Democratic Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — Confederate History Month was no longer observed in Virginia. McDonnell decided to reverse course, insisting that the observation would help promote tourism in the state, which marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war next year.

But here's where the controversy becomes even more controversial. Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican who succeeded Allen, added anti-slavery language to the resolution. As reported today by the Washington Post's Anita Kumar & Rosalind Helderman, the move "failed to satisfy either defenders of Confederate heritage or civil rights leaders. He later changed the proclamation by dropping references to Confederate History Month and instead designated April as 'Virginia's Month for Remembrance of the Sacrifices and Honor of All Virginians Who Served in the Civil War.'"

But, as the Post article notes, McDonnell decided to leave out the Gilmore language because, in the governor's words, "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."

Supporters, such as ex-state GOP chair Patrick McSweeney, were pleased. "I applaud McDonnell for doing it," McSweeney said. "I think it takes a certain amount of courage."

Civil rights organizations and black politicians reacted with fury. Former Gov. Douglas Wilder, whose victory in 1989 made him the nation's first African-American governor elected by the voters — and whose official neutrality during last year's gubernatorial campaign helped McDonnell's cause — called it "mind-boggling to say the least" that the anti-slavery language was dropped. More Wilder:

Confederate history is full of many things that unfortunately are not put forth in a proclamation of this kind nor are they things that anyone wants to celebrate. It's one thing to sound a cause of rallying a base. But it's quite another to distort history.

Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and a Democrat whose endorsement of McDonnell last year was seen as a major event, was furious with the governor's proclamation:

I must condemn Governor McDonnell's Proclamation honoring "Confederate History Month," and its insensitive disregard of Virginia's complicated and painful history, the remnants of which many Virginians still wrestle with today.

The complete omission of slavery from an official government document, which purports to be a call for Virginians to "understand" and "study"' their history, is both academically flawed and personally offensive. If Virginians are to celebrate their "shared history," as this proclamation suggests, then the whole truth of this history must be recognized and not evaded.

Indeed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, another McDonnell backer in '09, had this to say:

Although his proclamation quite properly recognizes the sacrifices of those who fought on behalf of the Confederacy, a hole lies in the statement's heart.

McDonnell speaks of shared history, yet does not cite slaves. Southern heritage includes not only those who supported the Confederacy but those who welcomed the Union armies as liberators.

McDonnell recognizes that the past must be interpreted within the context not only of its times but of ours. The inexcusable omission reduces the slaves and their descendants to invisibility once again.

David Weigel, blogging at the Washington Post's Right Now, reminds us that back in 2002, then-state Del. McDonnell decided to use a pledge written by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to open sessions of the House of Delegates. As per Weigel, here's how the Post covered the news back in '02:

McDonnell ... said he regards it as a "wholesome and healthy and patriotic" message. He said the intent was not to be divisive, and urged members to take the salute's words at face value.

"We don't inquire about the values and the feelings and the backgrounds of a patron of a bill," he said. "We look at what the legislation says. Where does that stop? Will we have to distance ourselves from the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence because they were written by slave-owners?"

Weigel adds, as a postscript: "As much of a no-brainer as it looks to conservatives, you couple it with the Confederate History Month declaration and it makes it just a little tougher to see McDonnell as a national candidate in 2012 or 2016."

Politico's Ben Smith says McDonnell's decision is "just about the last thing the Republican Party wants to talk about right now," and he's right. Forget about the circus involving Michael Steele and the RNC. The McDonnell decree comes not only in the wake of the election of the nation's first black president — a decision Virginia agreed with — but, in more recent terms, after the spectacle of racial epithets being hurled at some members of Congress during last month's vote on health care.

As I said when I began this post, I understand the pull of the Civil War on Virginians. I just don't understand why McDonnell felt now was the time to bring back the proclamation. If at all.

UPDATE: Talking Points Memo is reporting that McDonnell has apologized for not including any mention of slavery in his proclamation and added an extra clause to it. Here's the governor's statement, as released by his office:

The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of "profound regret" for the Commonwealth's history of slavery, which was the right thing to do.

And here's the added language to the proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history.....

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