Sons Of Confederate Veterans React To Altered Virginia Proclamation

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The proclamation to declare April as Confederate History Month was promoted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It’s an organization dedicated to upholding the honor and memory of confederate soldiers. Guest host Audie Cornish speaks with Brag Bowling, commander of the Northern Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, about the controversy surrounding the proclamation.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Now we turn to Brad Bowling. He's the commander of the Northern Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Bowling and his group are instrumental in getting Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to declare April Confederate History Month. And Brad Bowling joins us now.

Mr. BRAD BOWLING (Commander, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Northern Virginia Division): Hi.

CORNISH: Hey, Mr. Bowling, welcome to the program.

Mr. BOWLING: It's great being here.

CORNISH: Now, I want to ask what your response is to the governor's decision to not only revise the proclamation to include a mention of slavery, but to say that not doing so in the first place was a mistake and offensive.

Mr. BOWLING: I'll never say it's a mistake. I agree that it should've been in there, and our organization would not have been opposed to it. We did not write the proclamation. I don't think any sane person in the 21st century supports slavery, and nobody in our organization does, either. But what Governor McDonnell has done was an omission, and the omission came basically because he was doing the request of our organization, which is an organization which is based on Confederate soldiers, and I think he aimed his proclamation at that.

And he's taking a lot of heat right now, you know, from, basically, his political enemies. They're making hay out of this, which is a shame, because Governor McDonnell was good-hearted, and he did this to promote education in Virginia and to promote tourism in Virginia.

CORNISH: But at the same time, this isn't the first proclamation that's come up in Virginia that excluded slavery. And your group has supported these proclamations in the past.

Mr. BOWLING: Our group does not write the proclamation. And as I said before, we would have been quite content with a slave reference in a whereas clause in the proclamation.

CORNISH: And is the idea just a reference, or does it matter how explicit it is, for instance?

Mr. BOWLING: Well, I mean, I applaud Governor McDonnell for his courage in doing this, because he has taken a lot of heat. I do have some debate on whereas clause because he blamed the entire war, basically, on slavery, which is not true.

CORNISH: And this is his revision in his proclamation, he says that slavery led to the war.

Mr. BOWLING: Led to the war.

CORNISH: And what would you prefer? I think the widespread notion is that slavery was central to...

Mr. BOWLING: One of the factors leading to the war - and I am a little surprised that Governor Wilder has gotten himself so into this, because of he's got his own slave problem with the slave museum in Fredericksburg, which everybody's asking for a financial accounting of. I would never have thought he'd want to even discuss slavery.

CORNISH: But I want to get back to the central issue because this isn't the first governor to have to deal with this, to have to issue a kind of apology regarding this, and why the persistence in pursuing a proclamation? That seems to sort of end repeatedly in problems.

Mr. BOWLING: Well, the problem is not the proclamation. The problem is, in my opinion, is our educational system and the media. Our educational system does a very poor job of explaining the Civil War and the role of the Confederacy and what they fought for. That was what we wanted a debate on that. And surprisingly, we're getting more national attention and debate even though it's about this whereas clause than we've gotten in a long time. So, I have to thank the media for that.

CORNISH: At the same time, you know, in Virginia, where the Confederacy was -played such a central role in its history, there are monuments, statues, bridges, schools, markers throughout state government that do honor the Confederacy and its figures. What is, I guess, the argument for additional discussion there or for the proclamation?

Mr. BOWLING: We did no more than any other civic group in asking for the proclamation. And those monuments were done were built a hundred years ago. Today, we're no longer getting a factual and fair presentation of the issues. Most educational institutions now say slavery is the sole cause of the war. And that's just not true.

CORNISH: But for many people it does appear to be the central issue.

Mr. BOWLING: Virginia seceded because of Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln called up troops to invade the lower South and Virginia had been pro-union up until the day he called for those troops. The governor of Virginia said he would not supply Virginia troops to put down anything in the South and to keep America together by coercion or force.

CORNISH: I want to play a clip from...

Mr. BOWLING: ...was involved.

CORNISH: At the same time, I want to play a clip from another former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It's Brad Dorsey.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. BRAD DORSEY (Sons of Confederate Veterans): I think the slavery issue is totally overshadowed and basically it's been taken completely out of proportion with the other major governmental issues that were involved.

CORNISH: It sounds like it's not just you're saying it's not a central issue, but that it's a lot farther down on the list than is widely believed.

Mr. BOWLING: Well, Mr. Dorsey is a good friend of mine, but Mr. Dorsey is not a spokesman for the organization either. And it's his opinion.

CORNISH: I want to know how you are going to be marking the occasion of Confederate History Month, with or without this proclamation.

Mr. BOWLING: I mean, we'll do what we do every year. We go and give lectures to civic groups. We go to schools and put on living histories. We do all sorts of things like that to mark the to mark April. April, throughout the Civil War, was a very crucial month in Virginia and Confederate and American history, and that's the reason we wanted April to be done that way.

CORNISH: Brad Bowling is a national board member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He joined us from Richmond, Virginia. Thank you, Mr. Bowling.

Mr. BOWLING: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Yesterday, TELL ME MORE producer Lee Hill blogged about the situation brewing in Virginia over the proclamation. To read his thoughts and hear more from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, check out the TELL ME MORE blog. Go to NPR.org, click on programs and then select TELL ME MORE.

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