Virginia’s confederate history month conjures up old wounds
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, reviving a controversy that had been dormant for eight years, has declared that April will be Confederate History Month in Virginia, a move that angered civil rights leaders Tuesday but that political observers said would strengthen his position with his conservative base.
The two previous Democratic governors had refused to issue the mostly symbolic proclamation honoring the soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. McDonnell (R) revived a practice started by Republican governor George Allen in 1997. McDonnell left out anti-slavery language that Allen’s successor, James S. Gilmore III (R), had included in his proclamation.
McDonnell campaigned as a fairly moderate conservative figure, but that image has been undercut by moves like this and his revision of state law to remove employment protections for gay and lesbian workers. McDonnell’s stated reasoning for issuing the declaration is that it would help boost tourism on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
I have to say that I find that fairly unconvincing, just as is his explanation for why he made no mention of, you know, one of the major reasons that the war was fought:
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.”
Hmm. On the eve of the war, Virginia was both the largest slave state, with over 500,000 men and women in bondage and the state with the most slaveowners. Somehow, I think that counts as a “significant” fact.
I grew up in the southern part of Virginia, a place where, as Faulkner wrote, that the past is not dead; it’s not even past. In my hometown of Martinsville, a city that’s been experiencing severe economic hardship for the better part of the last ten to fifteen years, it’s not uncommon to see the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy flying in the back of a truck or from someone’s house. One of the nicest areas of Martinsville, an upper class neighborhood known as Chatmoss, is peppered with street names that celebrate venerated Confederate generals (Stonewall Jackson Trail, Jeb Stuart Road). Danville, VA, the last capital of the Confederacy, is only about 20 minutes away.
Look, I get it. There’s long been a battle over the symbols of the Confederacy and many people where I’m from and from other parts of the South claim that their elevation of their ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War has more to do with “heritage, not hate”. And, to be fair, I’m sure that’s true for many. However, let’s not rewrite history just to make ourselves feel better about a war that was, at base, an unlawful insurrection against a popularly elected government. The insensitivity this move shows towards the states black residents and descendants of those who fought against the Confederacy is breathtaking. The Civil War was waged for many reasons – states rights being a fairly important one – but to act as if slavery had nothing to do with it borders on the willfully ignorant.
Virginia has a long history of problems with race (Loving vs Virginia, anyone?) and this situation won’t help matters. That the state elected the nation’s first black governor over twenty years ago doesn’t remove the stain and pain of the effects of a war that still resonate today because of actions like Bob McDonnell’s.
Update: I had forgotten that up until 2000, the state of Virginia celebrated Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee on the same day the rest of the country celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.