Yet another reminder that, as William Faulkner memorably put it: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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 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 more I read about the American Civil War (most recently in William Davis’s Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America), the more I understand that if slavery was not technically the only issue in that conflict, it certainly was at the root of all the other issues. Glossing over that stubborn fact is disingenuous at best.
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.
“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,” he said. “It’s one thing to sound a cause of rallying a base. But it’s quite another to distort history.”
At least McDonnell didn’t go as far as Republican former governor George Allen, who signed a proclamation drafted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1997 calling the Civil War “a four-year struggle for [Southern] independence and sovereign rights” and not mentioning slavery.
I have to wonder how George Galloway would have reacted in the extremely unlikely event that he was a member of the Virginia General Assembly. On the one hand, he would have had his “leftist” bona fides to protect. On the other hand, he is a deep admirer of the Confederate general (and Virginian) Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, with whom he feels a “very, very profound connection.”
Update: The Washington Post reports:
After a barrage of nationwide criticism for excluding slavery from his Confederate History Month proclamation, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Wednesday conceded that it was “a major omission” and amended the document to acknowledge the state’s complicated past.