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McDonnell's Virginia Proclamation a Skirmish in Ongoing Un-Civil War

5 years ago
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Call it the battle of Richmond.

Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia issues a proclamation for Confederate History Month in the commonwealth, leaving out any mention of the buying and selling of human beings and the brutal decades of Jim Crow that followed.

After taking heat for the omission, he adds a paragraph, and no one is happy -- not the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose whispers in his ear prompted the original version, nor the descendants of those once defined as three-fifths of a person, who have been fighting to reclaim their entire selves ever since.

It carried me back, all right, to the battles that finally removed the Confederate flag from the top of the South Carolina statehouse in 2000, and to my 2004 journey through a thicket of heritage groups where "Dixie" was the national anthem of choice and a Confederate flag the only one honored because "you can't serve two masters."

It's not about history. Carl M. Cannon's post "Why Liberals Are Right to Refuse to Honor the Confederacy," makes clear the passions of Southern politicians long before the Civil War or the election of Abraham Lincoln. There is no mistaking their beliefs about blacks -- that "slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition."

When researching my Confederate narrative, I read those speeches, shaking my head as their words stoked fear of black men ravishing white Southern women, when of course the reality was white men raping the black women they owned without fear of rebuke or retribution. They passed down their descriptions of Abraham Lincoln as traitor and tyrant to many modern-day Confederates. (A lawyer who worked with a diverse group of colleagues asked me not to share his sentiment that the 16th president got what he deserved.)

Their words were echoed in Strom Thurmond's stand as a "Dixiecrat" presidential candidate in 1948: that "there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the 'nigra' race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches." This was, of course, before his black daughter stepped forward, the child he fathered when he was in his 20s with his father's teenage servant. The name of that daughter -- Essie Mae Washington-Williams -- was added to the list of Thurmond's children on a monument to him, and she said she would apply to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The bumper-sticker sentiment -- "heritage not hate" -- was hurled in the South Carolina fight, despite the inconvenient fact that the flag was raised not in the 1860s but the 1960s, voted atop the statehouse by an all-white state Legislature in defiance of the civil rights movement. As citizens of all races and ages marched to the state capital of Columbia, some whose ancestors had lived on South Carolina soil for generations, it was the same old bogeymen -- "outside agitators" -- blamed for wanting to break through the myths and take down the flag.

In 2004, I visited meetings across the range of heritage groups, from those content to dress in uniforms and widows' weeds and brave 90-degree heat to re-enact battles or place wreaths on grave sites to the League of the South with modern-day dreams of secession.

The Southern gentlemen -- not all of whom lived in the South -- lost their honeyed charm in anonymous e-mails that cluttered my inbox, many vicious and often describing sexual violence.

As I said, this latest fight uncovered nothing new.

Men and women steeped in tales of a noble cause still want to tell you of their own roots, of ancestors who fought bravely, believed in God and treated their beloved slaves like members of the family. Jeb Stuart, good; Reconstruction, very, very bad. Back then, I compared the most extreme among them to "the child who sticks his fingers in his ears and yells when mom tells him to do the right thing."

McDonnell is not a stupid man. He deliberately chose not to remember the Civil War and the events before and after as they were, but in a more appealing version, a Confederacy draped in a haze of "Gone With the Wind" moss, magnolias and mint juleps. If he wants to do that in the privacy of his home, that's his right. But to initially ignore the brutal truth in a public proclamation did a disservice to all the citizens he has sworn to govern. That truth is more apt to appeal to a broader range of the tourists he said he wants to attract. James Madison's Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello -- both of which I've visited -- have tentatively begun to examine the complicated legacies of their admirable and flawed owners, making those legacies richer in the process.

Virginians, and Americans, can handle the truth. Well, up to a point.

That Confederate flag in South Carolina came down off the statehouse, only to find a prominent place on the grounds, another compromise that pleased few. In 2008, the top three Democratic primary candidates stood in the shadow of that large flag while celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, with President-to-be Barack Obama singing the praises of progress made and battles to come.

Nothing, it seems, comes without a fight.

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