Virginia governor: Is it so wrong to love the Old South?

The Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, is reinstating Confederate History Month. But that brings back ideas and symbols of the Old South that are offensive to many Americans – including many Southerners.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, shown speaking at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., in this March 31 photo. McDonnell is reinstating Confederate History Month for the month of April.

After living through a decade of attacks against the Confederate battle flag and school administrators suspending students who wear Dixie regalia, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is, like a true Johnny Reb, fighting back.

By reinstating Confederate History Month after previous Democratic governors banned it in the Old Dominion, Governor McDonnell says he wants to remember the South's sacrifices ahead of sesquicentennial commemorations of the Civil War, which start next year. This is the state that housed the Confederate government in Richmond and where most of the Civil War, the country's bloodiest campaign, was fought.

But the designation by the Virginia governor for the month of April is bringing back ideas and symbols that many Americans – including many Southerners – find offensive and divisive. It could derail efforts to win favor among Democrats, not to mention Southern blacks, and it could drive a cultural wedge into the Republican Party as it looks for ways to win in November.

On the other hand, McDonnell's proclamation could also rally a substantial conservative base that's felt beleaguered by attempts to, if not rewrite, effectively banish Confederate history.

Some see those attempts as part of a political correctness movement. "If the proclamation does anything, it hopefully will be a nail in the coffin of political correctness," writes Brag Bowling, commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups have for years fought against Southern states keeping Confederate symbols, especially on public lands such as capitol grounds and public colleges. To many, the Old South is a slave-holding blot on history and deserves to be demoted in the annals of history.

Indeed, most appalling to critics is McDonnell's decision to leave out references to slavery, which were included in a previous proclamation. McDonnell's declaration asks Virginians to "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War ...."

He did not mention slavery, he told The Washington Post, because "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states." He continues, "Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

"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," former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who is the first African-American to win the governor's office in Virginia, tells the Post. "It's one thing to sound a cause of rallying a base. But it's quite another to distort history."

One backdrop to efforts like McDonnell's declaration is what Southern Legal Resource Center founder Kirk Lyons describes as a situation where Southerners are facing discrimination, harassment, humiliation, employment termination, and school suspensions "simply because they're proud of their Confederate ancestry."

At the same time, some Southerners are starting to reclaim their heritage, in part by flying giant Confederate flags along Southern interstates.

McDonnell, who has been known as a staunch social conservative, avoided hot-button cultural issues during a governor's race that was seen as a repudiation of recent Democratic victories across the United States. But he has since waded into cultural issues such the gay rights debate and now Confederate commemorations.

Politically, McDonnell's move shows the tone-deafness of Republicans, writes Charles Johnson in True/Slant, an online news network. "Republicans like McDonnell are reveling in their racism, and pandering to the most vile segments of US society," he writes. "And then they whine and complain when African Americans want nothing to do with them."

Shawn Rider, in a review of Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic," writes that the age-old pull between the darker meaning of the Civil War's symbols and the affection Southerners have for their ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War is an enduring American condition.

"[G]reat enthusiasm leads to reverence for ancestors that do not necessarily deserve it," he concludes. "Still, it is not as if any individual can decide for another which ancestors are worth revering… [W]e need the courage to confront our [past] head on ...."

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