Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What a Nutcase

McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation irks civil rights
By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
RICHMOND -- 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.
• McDonnell revives storm over Va.'s Confederate past
• dot.comments: Readers respond to McDonnell's proclamation
• WEB SITE: Commemoration of the American Civil War
View All Items in This Story
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
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 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."
The seven-paragraph declaration calls for Virginians to "understand the
sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the
period of the Civil War."
McDonnell had quietly made the proclamation Friday by placing it on his
Web site, but it did not attract attention in the state capital until
Tuesday. April also honors child abuse prevention, organ donations,
financial literacy and crime victims.
After a fall campaign spent focusing almost exclusively on jobs and the
economy, McDonnell had been seen in recent weeks as largely ceding
conservative ground to the state's activist attorney general, Ken
Cuccinelli II. The proclamation could change that view among Republicans
who believe appropriate respect for the state's Confederate past has
been erased by an over-allegiance to political correctness, observers
"It helps him with his base," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at
George Mason University. "These are people who support state's rights
and oppose federal intrusion."
Said Patrick M. McSweeney, a former state GOP chairman: "I applaud
McDonnell for doing it. I think it takes a certain amount of courage."
The Virginia NAACP and the state's Legislative Black Caucus called the
proclamation an insult to a large segment of the state's population,
particularly because it never acknowledges slavery.
"Governor McDonnell's proclamation was offensive and offered a
disturbing revision of the Civil War and the brutal era that followed,"
said Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), chairman of the
Legislative Black Caucus. "Virginia has worked hard to move beyond the
very things for which Governor McDonnell seems nostalgic."
King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference
of the NAACP, said his group will hold an emergency meeting Saturday to
discuss a series of problems it has had with McDonnell since he was
sworn into office in January.
• McDonnell revives storm over Va.'s Confederate past
• dot.comments: Readers respond to McDonnell's proclamation
• WEB SITE: Commemoration of the American Civil War
View All Items in This Story
Virginia has had a long, complicated history on racial relations -- long
before Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy during the
Civil War. Many of its most prominent early residents, including future
presidents, owned slaves, and the state openly fought desegregation,
even closing schools instead of integrating them. But in 1989, the state
made Wilder the first African American governor in the nation since
McDonnell said Tuesday that people's thinking about civil rights and the
role of the Confederacy in Virginia history have advanced to the point
where "people can talk about and discuss and . . . begin to understand
the history a little better."
"I felt just as I've issued dozens and dozens of other commemorations,
that it was something that was worthy of doing so people can at least
study and understand that period of Virginia history and how it impacts
us today," he said.
The state's new governor campaigned relentlessly on improving the
economy and creating jobs and received the strong backing of the
business community. But the attention that Virginia will receive from
the proclamation might take away from that focus.
Rozell said the proclamation is a "distraction" from McDonnell's desire
to attract companies to Virginia. Businesses might begin to perceive
McDonnell's latest decision -- combined with Cuccinelli's decision to
sue the federal government over health-care reform legislation and his
advice to state colleges and universities that they remove
sexual-orientation language from their anti-discrimination policies --
as a pattern of behavior not conducive to relocating in the state.
Allen caused a national uproar when he signed a proclamation drafted by
the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It called the Civil War "a four-year
struggle for [Southern] independence and sovereign rights" and made no
mention of slavery.
Gilmore modified the decree in 1998 by adding a condemnation of slavery,
but it failed to satisfy either defenders of Confederate heritage or
civil rights leaders. He later changed the proclamation by dropping
references to Confederate History Month and instead designated April as
"Virginia's Month for Remembrance of the Sacrifices and Honor of All
Virginians Who Served in the Civil War."
But in 2002, Mark Warner, Gilmore's successor, broke with their actions,
calling such proclamations a "lightning rod" that did not help bridge
divisions between whites and blacks in Virginia. Four years later,
Timothy M. Kaine was asked but did not issue a proclamation.
This year's proclamation was requested by the Sons of Confederate
Veterans. A representative of the group said it has known since it
interviewed McDonnell when he was running for attorney general in 2005
that he was likely to respond differently than Warner or Kaine.
"We've known for quite some time we had a good opportunity should he
ascend the governorship," said Brandon Dorsey of the Sons of Confederate
Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), who has spoken from the floor of
the General Assembly about honoring Virginia's Confederate past with
appropriate acknowledgments to its difficult racial past, said he
believed Warner and Kaine "avoided" the issue by failing to issue
similar documents. "It would be totally inappropriate to do one that
would just poke a stick to stir up old wounds. But it is appropriate to
recognize the historical significance of Virginia in that era," he said.
"I think it's appropriate as long as it's not fiery." McDonnell's
proclamation comes just before the April 17, 1861, anniversary of the
day Virginia seceded from the union.

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