Confederate (Distortion of) History Month

April 19, 2010

It's criminal that Virginia's governor could promote a version of the state's history that neglects to mention the horrific crime of slavery, writes Michele Bollinger.

SARAH PALIN, Haley Barbour, John Boehner, Newt Gingrich--add Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to the list. The upper echelon of Republican Party politicians is stuffed full of ugly bigots who never miss an opportunity to do or say something repellant.

Last week, McDonnell--a graduate of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network School of Law (this is not a joke; it's now known as Regent University), but whose 2009 campaign for governor intentionally downplayed his right-wing views--grabbed the spotlight when he declared April to be "Confederate History Month."

The commemoration of Confederate History Month had fallen out of favor until 1997, when it was revived by then-Gov. George Allen, another Republican. After Allen left office, the commemoration again dropped away for eight years--until McDonnell issued his announcement.

McDonnell's proclamation caused shock waves by simultaneously glorifying the Confederate South, but making no mention of slavery, slaves or people of African descent in any form--a whitewashing of sickening proportions.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (Gage Skidmore)

In McDonnell's version of history, the Civil War is redefined as a "war between the states for independence," where Confederate armed forces innocently "fought for their homes and communities"--rather than a bloody conflict in which 1.2 million people died and where Confederate forces fought to preserve the unspeakably cruel system of slavery.

McDonnell's depiction of the North's victory--which, in reality, smashed the Southern slaveocracy and liberated millions from bondage--is laced with wistfulness and regret: The Confederacy was "ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable resources of the Union army," the proclamation says.

McDonnell portrayed Confederate generals and soldiers as noble heroes, who after their defeat "returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace"--a "peace" that included the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and decades of Jim Crow barbarism that followed in Virginia.

These parts of history should be "studied, understood and remembered," McDonnell says. The idea that the state will promote and encourage this version of history is criminal. As the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in 1878: "There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget."

McDONNELL ISN'T the first Virginia governor to pay tribute to Dixie. While the two preceding Democrat governors refrained from proclaiming Confederate History Month, racism is an institution in Virginia.

This is a state where the national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is called "Jackson-Lee-King Day"--as in Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee--and where the Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the president of the Confederacy, runs from Arlington to Richmond.

Virginia is a right-to-work state with one of the most barbaric and active death penalty systems in the country, second only to the state of Texas. But it's also a place where demographics and politics are changing, and where Barack Obama beat John McCain in 2008. Unlike years past, McDonnell felt tremendous heat for his actions.

Thus, one key financial backer of McDonnell, Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the Washington Mystics basketball team, wrote:

I must condemn Governor McDonnell's Proclamation honoring "Confederate History Month," and its insensitive disregard of Virginia's complicated and painful history, the remnants of which many Virginians still wrestle with today...

The complete omission of slavery from an official government document, which purports to be a call for Virginians to "understand" and "study" their history, is both academically flawed and personally offensive. If Virginians are to celebrate their "shared history," as this proclamation suggests, then the whole truth of this history must be recognized and not evaded.

McDonnell's answer to these objections spoke volumes. He said he hadn't "focused" on slavery because "there were any number of aspects" to the Civil War, and he chose what was "most significant for Virginia."

What callous disregard for the millions of African slaves and their descendents, not to mention the 1.5 million African Americans who live in Virginia today. To Bob McDonnell, the bloody crimes of the slave-owning South and Confederates who defended it--much less the liberation of African slaves and their descendents--didn't matter then, and doesn't now.

But as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out: "McDonnell chose his language knowingly...His sanitized spin on the Civil War could not have been better framed to appeal to an unreconstructed white cohort that, while much diminished in the 21st century, popped back out of the closet during the Obama ascendancy."

McDonnell is no stranger to controversies like this one. As a member of the state legislature in the early 2000s, he proposed that lawmakers revive reciting a pledge to the flag of Virginia that had originated with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. McDonnell claimed he didn't know the origins of the pledge--but, with language similar to his slippery justifications for Confederate History Month, he insisted nevertheless that "the words are good."

For his part, President Barack Obama repudiated McDonnell, saying, "I don't think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery." But Obama gave him a pass on all the rest: "I think it's just a reminder that when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion, that, you know, we, we'd better do so, thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people. And their sense of whether they're part of a commonwealth or part of our broader society."

Obama's comments suggest that McDonnell's actions were mistaken because people are emotionally sensitive--not that Confederate History Month has grave implications for how people understand the Civil War era, or that it can emboldens the worst element of the right, which means a more dangerous atmosphere for people of color and immigrants in particular.

While omitting any mention of slavery may have been a political error on McDonnell's part, it wasn't a mistake--but rather the logical conclusion of the whole idea of having Confederate History Month.

And while the likes of Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour dismissed the whole controversy as people making "a big deal out of something that doesn't amount to diddley," McDonnell was forced to apologize and professed to "agree" with President Obama that it was "unacceptable" not to mention that the Confederacy was tied up with slavery.

But the damage has been done--the core of the damage, of course, being Confederate History Month itself, which is still underway in Virginia.

AS POLITICALLY grotesque and backward as it may be, Confederate History Month serves two purposes for the right.

One is to provide historical grounding to the Tea Party types and their anti-government fanaticism. It was the Sons of Confederate Veterans that lobbied for McDonnell to reinstate Confederate History Month--the same organization is rabidly opposed to the Democrats and Obama, and framed its rants against the recent health care law in terms of states' rights.

The second is to continue the decades-long attempt to distort the truth about the Civil War era. In the conservatives' claims that the Civil War was about "independence" or "states' rights," the "rights" they defend are the rights to own other human beings, to torture them into performing labor, and to kill them if they tried to resist or run away.

As Rich pointed out, the rhetoric about states' rights used to defend McDonnell's proclamation is of a piece with a proposal from right-wing Republicans in Oklahoma to form a "volunteer militia" that would "help defend against...federal infringements on state sovereignty."

The state of Virginia is practically the birthplace of American slavery--20 kidnapped Africans were brought to the Jamestown settlement on a Dutch ship in 1619. By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves in Virginia--half the population of the colony. Virginia is where Declaration of Independence author and later President Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves until the day he died--and where he bore children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

But it is also where, in 1831, Nat Turner organized his famous slave rebellion. He and nearly 70 other slaves were killed following an uprising in which some 55 whites died on several plantations in Southampton County, Virginia.

Because of the constant fear among whites of slave revolts, Virginia had some of the most repressive and violent laws. The state of Virginia executed Turner and 18 others for the 1831 rebellion. In 1859, the state of Virginia executed militant white abolitionist John Brown and four others involved in Brown's armed raid at Harper's Ferry (now in West Virginia).

With McDonnell facing national criticism, we can hope that--like fellow Republican George Allen (of "macaca" fame) before him--he may have sullied his future political ambitions with his latest outrage.

But we should also organize in the face of right-wing attacks--as activists in Virginia did when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli attempted to undo protections for LGBT people in the state university system. If we speak out, we can build a movement that can not just rid our society of Confederate History Month, but challenge racism in all forms.

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