By now many of you have read Governor McDonnell’s apology for failing to recognize slavery in his proclamation designating April as Confederate History Month. It directly addresses the concerns expressed by many that by failing to address the crucial issue of slavery the proclamation distorts the very history that it claims to celebrate and promote for further study. The governor’s announcement included the following amendment to the original 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…
I think it’s safe to say that this is not what the Sons of Confederate Veterans had in mind when they asked the governor to reinstate the proclamation. Let’s face it the last few years have not been kind to the SCV; consider the recent controversy surrounding their attempt to place a statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber next to the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar in Richmond. I was surprised that the governor decided to wade into these waters after two previous administrations decided to discontinue the practice. McDonnell could have set aside April as a month to remember the Civil War in a way that was much more inclusive rather than resorting to the old Lost Cause saw.
While the governor’s change of heart will be applauded by some let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that McDonnell happened to pick up a book by Ira Berlin or David Blight and had one of those moments of insight. These statements and subsequent decisions must be understood as political. We should remember that the Civil War memory outlined in the original proclamation would have gone unchallenged only a few decades ago and it would have gone unchallenged because it reflected the view of the ruling class. The governor implies as much in his apology:
When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present.
Perhaps what the governor failed to appreciate is that the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial is the result of a fundamental shift away from a not-too-distant past when white Virginians controlled local and state government. It reflects the sacrifices that white and black Virginians made to bring about a more inclusive society. That political monopoly that existed throughout much of the twentieth century extended to control over how the state would remember its history in public spaces and through public proclamations. It’s not that the story of black Virginia only recently appeared. It was always there. Is anyone really surprised that black Virginians would be upset at the issuance of a proclamation whose very content essentially reflected a time when only white Virginians were in control? Had black Virginians been able to voice their concerns and frustrations from within city and state government in the past they would have done so. The governor’s proclamation clearly did not satisfy the “shared history” that many have come to embrace in recent years. I am not surprised and I applaud their commitment to stand up against a Lost Cause narrative that is infused with racism and distortion. The governor is absolutely on target when he noted that “Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present.”
Finally, the governor would have us believe that the proclamation was meant solely to promote tourism and education:
The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.
While I don’t believe the governor intended to cause any undue anger and frustration within the black community it is difficult to believe that given the content of the proclamation his sole motivation was education and tourism. It’s also hard to believe that just this kind of fallout was not raised by one of his political advisers when the document was framed. My suggestion is to allow the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission to act as the voice of the state government. Anyone remotely familiar with this organization will know that they have done an outstanding job of promoting both education and tourism throughout the state. Again, there was absolutely no reason for this proclamation.
I think that what happened today is significant. It demonstrates once and for all that a substantial voting block of Virginia’s population will no longer tolerate the sanctioning of a Lost Cause narrative by state officials. That’s a good thing for those of us who hope to see a sesquicentennial commemoration that asks its citizens to face the tough questions of the past in hopes of building a shared history of the conflict that may help us to push forward as a community. I remain hopeful.