RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Less than three months into office, Gov. Bob McDonnell was blindsided last week by questions his Confederate History Month decree evoked, and the national furor that ensued.
Mentioning Old Dixie without noting the horrors of human bondage brought passions of the past into a quarrelsome political climate that elected the first black president in 2008, and has ignited angry protests over his policies since then.
It’s all the more troubling to a former Virginia governor that the words like “usurpation,” “nullification” and “state sovereignty” are prominent in bitter protests over a new federal law that expands the federal reach on health care. Those same terms were in vogue around the Civil War in the 1850s and 1860s, and during the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.
McDonnell immediately felt the lash of public criticism and swiftly apologized for the omission, adding a paragraph to his proclamation that denounces slavery as “evil and inhumane.” But the whirlwind persisted and went global, with Obama saying in a television interview from Prague that McDonnell’s omission was “unacceptable.”
L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves whom Virginians made the nation’s first elected black governor in 1989, accepted McDonnell’s apology and dismissed the flap as “an honest mistake by an honorable man.”
Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said the proclamation seemed like a lot of noise over something that “doesn’t amount to diddly.”
But Wilder said the abiding desire to celebrate the Old South with official declarations, most recently by Virginia and Georgia, is a worrisome sign that history’s lessons have not been fully learned as angry voices again advocate states’ rights and preach defiance to Washington.
“They’re talking about there being an effort by the government to take away their freedom,” Wilder said in an Associated Press interview. “No one is taking away anyone’s freedom, but we’ve heard all of that before. So you ask them, ’You really don’t like this nation? You really want to secede?”’
And it’s not just activists who energize the growing Tea Party movement who drive the impassioned debate. Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested his state could be driven to secede from the union by Washington, though he emphasized that .
“I guess what offends me is the disregard relative to the facts of what the Civil War was about, what the practice of slavery really was like, and the state of events in this country had the South succeeded in that war,” Wilder said.
When he was governor, Wilder issued a proclamation commemorating the strife and loss, both Union and Confederate, in the Civil War, with Virginia being home to more of its battles than any other state. Also during his term from 1990 to 1994, Wilder ordered Confederate flag arm patches removed from the sleeves of Virginia Air National Guard uniforms.
In the states that comprised the Confederacy, proclamations honoring the Lost Cause are never simple or easy. Issue them and invite the wrath of African-Americans who view it as validation of a system that held their ancestors in chains. Refuse them and anger constituents whose ancestors fought for the South, though most rebel soldiers were far too poor ever to own slaves.
It’s a difficult choice, said David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist and descendant of a Confederate soldier who co-wrote a book in 2006 on how Democrats can win back the white Southern voters who abandoned the party for the GOP and Richard Nixon in 1968.
“What upsets them is when slavery is injected into the discussion and it’s imputed that their ancestors — their great-great-granddaddies who fought in the Civil War — were racists and when only 3 (percent) to 5 percent of the people in the Confederacy owned slaves,” Saunders said.
“We don’t like to be called racists, damn it. We don’t. Because we’re not. The greatest feat the devil ever accomplished on this earth was slavery,” he said.
But because the seceded states of the South and the war that restored them to the Union by force will always be linked to race by slavery, it will be hard for black and white people ever to see it dispassionately, much less agree, Saunders said.
“And the way I see it, both sides are right,” he said. “A thousand years from now, people will still be arguing about it in these hills.”