Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Old Dominion Shows the Way

Posted in Leadership, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on September 24, 2010

Bloggers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kevin Levin both call attention to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s announcement Friday that next spring, Confederate History Month will be replaced by Civil War in Virginia Month. This is not only good news, but the governor also chose to make his announcement at the highest-profile venue possible, the 2010 Signature Conference of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.

The legacies of the Civil War still have the potential to divide us. But there is a central lesson of that conflict that must bond us together today. Until the Civil War, the founding principle that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights was dishonored by slavery. Slavery was an evil and inhumane practice which degraded people to property, defied the eternal truth that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. For this to be truly one nation under God required the abolition of slavery from our soil. Until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the Civil War ended, our needed national reconciliation could not begin. It is still a work in progress.

150 years is long enough for Virginia to fight the Civil War.

“Now, on the eve of this anniversary, is a time for us to approach this period with a renewed spirit of goodwill, reverently recalling its losses, eagerly embracing its lessons, and celebrating the measure of unity we have achieved as a diverse nation united by the powerful idea of human freedom.

A modern Virginia has emerged from her past strong, vibrant and diverse. Now, a modern Virginia will remember that past with candor, courage and conciliation. . . .

It’s time to discuss openly how we as Americans, black, white and brown can promote greater reconciliation and trust and greater access to the American Dream for all, so that there is more peace in our hearts and homes, schools and neighborhoods.

This speech is direct, comprehensive, and eloquent. In this address, Bob McDonnell acknowledges and embraces the fundamental truth that so many are unwilling to — that one cannot separate Confederate history from the Civil War, nor the Civil War from this nation’s long, dark legacy of slavery. They are all aspects of the same heritage we share, inextricably intertwined and knotted together.

I have been critical of McDonnell’s original Confederate History Month proclamation — “tone deaf” is about the most charitable thing one can say about it — but today’s remarks really do clean the slate. And while the governor certainly caught a lot of (well-deserved) hell for that earlier document, I’m not going to take a cynical view of his motivations in reversing course here. As Coates said, “You can not ask politicians to do the right thing, and then attack them for doing it.” Amen.

Good for Bob McDonnell. Good for Virginia. Good for the South, and good for our nation. I hope that in this area, has it has so often throughout American history, Virginia sets an example for others to follow.

Added Monday, September 27: Via TPMMuckraker, the SCV responds to McDonnell’s move:

“Our organization is terribly disappointed by this action,” [Virginia SCV Division Commander Brag] Bowling told TPMmuckraker. “[McDonnell] succumbed to his critics, people who don’t support him anyway. And the vast majority of citizens of Virginia support Confederate History Month.”

He said he had spoken with the governor’s office and told them the same thing. He said “Civil War In Virginia Month” is a poor substitute.

“Nobody’s ever been able to reason with me and tell me why we’re honoring Yankees in Virginia,” Bowling said. “The only northerners in Virginia were the ones that came to Virginia and killed thousands of Virginia citizens when they invaded.”

I suppose it’s too much to ask for the SCV to actually respond to the detailed and specific content of McDonnell’s address; instead Bowling drags out the same tired dog-whistles about Yankees and “invasion.” Seriously, folks: get yourselves some new talking points.

Full text of the governor’s address after the jump.

“Thank you Virginia (board), for that kind introduction, and Dominion for sponsoring this great event.

“Thank you President Kim Luckes, Rector Ed Hamm, and the Norfolk State University community for hosting all of us today.

“I want to congratulate the Green and Gold, the Spartans, on a great start to the season. 51 points last week……you are doing a lot better than my alma mater, Notre Dame. We’ve suffered through some tough ones recently!

“And I want to thank the General Assembly, Cheryl Jackson and the staff of the Sesquicentennial for planning for years to take on these pivotal issues.

“On behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I welcome scholars and leaders from around the nation to this very important conference to discuss the truly tough stuff of the American Civil War.

“Virginia now begins the four year period marking the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

“A prosperous, dynamic, and diverse Commonwealth is attempting to remember, understand, and put into proper perspective one of the most painful and bloody periods in the history of western civilization. This is not going to be easy.

“I know that from firsthand experience.

“In the century and a half since the armistice was executed at Appomattox, few states have undergone as many changes, or witnessed such stunning growth and progress, as our Commonwealth. Our borders have been fixed for 147 years; but our culture, community, and breadth of opportunity have been incredibly dynamic. These changes have made Virginia a stronger and better place.

“But they have also made our collective “memory” — how our diverse society remembers and processes the events in its collective history — much more complicated.

“In earlier times, Virginia’s dominant culture was defined by relatively few, and basic civil rights were excluded for many. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that culture, and both were present in abundance, as in any human enterprise – there was a common lens through which to view history. Those in power wrote a single, narrow narrative. It left out many people, along with their powerful stories.

“And so, while talking about our history has become more complicated today, we can all agree it has also become a much richer conversation.

“Today we are a Commonwealth of nearly 8 million people, and one in ten citizens are foreign born. We come from many different countries, backgrounds and traditions. Modern Virginia is a place of great natural beauty, hope, and opportunity, a place refined in the crucible of conflict, and renewed in its commitment to the founding ideal of equal liberty and justice and opportunity for all.

“We have made progress together in Virginia. The nation’s first African-American governor. An African-American is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The nation’s first official expression of ‘profound regret’ for slavery from a legislature. A marvelous civil rights memorial is in front of the Governor’s Mansion. And last week, I helped unveil a wonderful new portrait of Barbara Johns in the State Capitol.

“In my Inaugural Address, I tried to tell this story of progress, and reflect on Virginia’s common history.

“I stood on the steps of the State Capitol, looking down towards the James River, the waterway of the settlers. The building behind me was designed by Virginia’s second Governor, Thomas Jefferson. Inside it, Robert E. Lee, the son of a Virginia governor, took command of Virginia’s military forces in 1861. Four years later, President Abraham Lincoln visited the Capitol as the fallen city around it burned. In 1990 that same building welcomed the inauguration of my friend, Governor Doug Wilder, the grandson of slaves. And now I stood there, a descendant of ancestors who were poor farmers in Ireland in the 1860’s. An average middle class kid from Fairfax County became part of that gubernatorial tradition tracing back to Patrick Henry.

“I was far less successful in capturing the full meaning of our history when, four months later, I issued a proclamation concerning Confederate History Month. My major and unacceptable omission of slavery disappointed and hurt a lot of people, myself included. Young people make mistakes, and I suppose sometimes young administrations do as well. Ours was an error of haste and not of heart. And it is an error that will be fixed.

“Next April, our office will issue a ‘Civil War in Virginia’ proclamation commemorating the beginning of the Civil War in our state.

“This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians—free and enslaved; Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

“While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

“The legacies of the Civil War still have the potential to divide us. But there is a central lesson of that conflict that must bond us together today. Until the Civil War, the founding principle that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights was dishonored by slavery. Slavery was an evil and inhumane practice which degraded people to property, defied the eternal truth that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. For this to be truly one nation under God required the abolition of slavery from our soil. Until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the Civil War ended, our needed national reconciliation could not begin. It is still a work in progress.

“150 years is long enough for Virginia to fight the Civil War.

“Now, on the eve of this anniversary, is a time for us to approach this period with a renewed spirit of goodwill, reverently recalling its losses, eagerly embracing its lessons, and celebrating the measure of unity we have achieved as a diverse nation united by the powerful idea of human freedom.

“A modern Virginia has emerged from her past strong, vibrant and diverse. Now, a modern Virginia will remember that past with candor, courage and conciliation.

“It is my hope that the work of the Sesquicentennial Commission will bear much fruit, starting with this conference. Beginning in 2011, people will come from across the world to see the solemn battlefields of Virginia, home to more than any other state, and we encourage and welcome that tourism. Experts will come to conferences and appear on TV and debate the causes, tactics and legacy of the war that divided America, and we encourage that dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, we must do what we are doing today. We must discuss the “tough stuff”today.

“It’s time to discuss openly how we as Americans, black, white and brown can promote greater reconciliation and trust and greater access to the American Dream for all, so that there is more peace in our hearts and homes, schools and neighborhoods.

“Again, I thank all of you for joining us here today to discuss the “tough stuff” of the Civil War. May a spirit of mutual respect and love govern your discussions.

“Have a great conference and God Speed!”

____________________________________

Image: Attendees begin rise to applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell statements during the opening 2010 Signature Conference on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil war at Norfolk State University’s L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center on Friday. Gov. McDonnell apologized again for the recent flap surrounding his Confederate History Month controversy by saying the omission of slavery in the spring decree was an “error of haste, not of heart.” Photo by Adrin Snider, Newport News Daily Press.

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