Understanding Governor McDonnell’s Apology

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.

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Governor McDonnell Apologizes

Governor McDonnell issued a statement late Wednesday in which he apologizes for failing to reference slavery in his proclamation.

“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.

[click to continue…]

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Dear Gov. McDonnell: Confederate History Month is Not “Shared History”

Update: I think it is important to point out that the governor’s proclamation is easily eclipsed by the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Committee, which has aggressively pushed for an inclusive and education-driven approach to commemorating the Civil War.  I am proud to serve as an advisor to this state-sponsored committee.  Click here for more on this issue.

How do I know this?  Just read Virginia Governor McDonnell’s proclamation:

Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today[.]

Why does the general public need to be reminded that a war which took place 150 years ago was fought “in a time very different than ours today”?  What exactly is the point in making this explicit?

it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present[.]

Yes, many Virginians sacrificed during the war.  It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all citizens were loyal to the Confederate government.  But if we are simply referring to those people who resided within the borders of Virginia between 1861-1865 shouldn’t the proclamation reference Virginia’s slave population.  After all, didn’t they also make sacrifices during the war?

all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”[.]

Really?  Can all Virginians, regardless of race, remember a postwar period where peace ruled their communities?  Were the “blessings of peace” extended to “all Virginians?

this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all[.]

Well, who would disagree?  As a history teacher I strongly encourage those interested to study the rich history of Virginia and the Civil War.  What the governor doesn’t seem to appreciate, however, is that the more history one studies the less likely he will identify with the overly simplistic and narrow vision of the war presented here.

Note: Brooks Simpson has also had a go of it over at Civil Warriors.  I also recommend reading Robert Moore’s thoughts at Cenantua as well as Richard Williams.

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The Civil War’s Statler and Waldorf

This morning I came across this video of the Kennedy boys doing their little schtick on why the “South was Right” about everything concerning those timeless American values of freedom and liberty.

After a few minutes of watching this silliness I couldn’t help but think of another dynamic duo.

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Skyping With Skidmore

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Prof. Gregory Pfitzer, who is currently teaching a course in American Studies at Skidmore College.  His students are examining various aspects of Civil War memory and as part of their reading Prof. Pfitzer assigned one of my blog posts on the recent controversy surrounding the SCV’s Davis-Limber statue that was supposed to be placed on the grounds at the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond.  I agreed to respond to their comments.  I did my best to respond to every student and on more than one occasion the give and take resulted in lengthy threads.  The students’ comments were incredibly thoughtful and forced me to rethink some of my own assumptions about this story. [Skidmore comments begin with #17 on March 11]

Prof. Pfitzer and I decided to follow up the assignment with a Skype interview, which we thought would give students a chance to ask further questions about the subject or anything else on their minds about Civil War Memory.

Untitled from Kevin Levin on Vimeo.

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