We annually celebrate Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and in several parts of the country, Gay Pride Day in one version or another.
So (why be surprised that) the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a public-interest association with branches in several southern states, demands what to them is an equal right: To have a month or so to commemorate the courage and gallantry of the ‘late, great defenders of the South.’ It is also very interesting how many people define rights nowadays.
Even though the legislature of the Virginia Commonwealth refused to pass either a resolution or a state law regarding this issue, new Virginia Governor Robert F. McConnell just issued an annual proclamation to celebrate Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia, ‘so that the youth in Virginia can learn to honor and respect those who have fought to preserve and protect this great southern state.’
The proclamation has been met with fierce criticism from many Black leaders, many Democrats, and several White Independents. To them, a Confederate History Month is essentially racist, since Gov. McConnell’s executive order did not include any mention of the intersection of slavery and the confederate cause.
CNN’s Roland Martin and former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder–the first African American elected governor in one of the 50 states–among others, have waxed eloquent and profound in their disagreement with Gov. McDonnell’s decision.
Former Gov. Wilder said that he had been asked during his term of office to grant permission for such a commemoration, as had Tim Kaine, one of his successors, but he and Kaine had refused, as had every other Democratic governor of Virginia in the past 15 to 20 years. Only the Republican governors of Virginia had acceded to the request of groups like the SCV, and the Daughters of the Confederacy, and they have regularly issued the one-year permission for the April commemoration. So even though it got a lot of publicity, Governor McConnell’s move was not the first time the state’s chief executive had made the same or a similar proclamation in Virginia, nor is the state unique in the South for having such commemorations.
Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore previously issued a proclamation in 1998 recognizing Confederate History Month, while Georgia’s Sonny Perdue, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, and Alabama’s Bob Riley have all issued state proclamations to celebrate Confederate History Month in April (the month the Civil War started). Additionally, the Texas Senate has passed a resolution designating this time period as Confederate History and Heritage Month, and the Georgia state legislature made April a permanent time for the celebration of Johnny Rebs and their history.
Most of the recent opposition to these proclamations (and the vocal fireworks had been token until this year) always stress the need to properly acknowledge the relationship between the enslavement of most of the South’s African American population and the Confederacy, and the fact that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War and should be recognized as such. Some even say the Confederacy was treasonous, and except for Abraham Lincoln’s urge to forgive and re-unite the vanquished South, would and should have resulted in most of the United States of the Confederacy’s leaders, who were not killed in the War, being arrested, tried and executed as seditious.
It is very interesting that a pattern of reviving such Confederate celebrations and hero-worshipping has repeated itself from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Movement to the days of Black political assertiveness. This is no accident. This kind of revivalism is cultural code-switching. Using overt symbols like the bright red Confederate battle flag, crossed guns and other such items, it speaks to a central mantra that is embedded in White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture in this country–the idea of Manifest Destiny, i.e., this nation is White man’s country, and they need to reclaim it from those threatening to take it from them.
This is echoed in the Tea Party Movement, in the loud noise from many of the healthcare town halls organized by the Republican Party, and it is reflected in the proclamations regarding remembering the Confederacy.
As this clamoring continues in the media, what is couched as an argument over history will be very selective about what history is brought up and claimed. Whether the Confederacy proclamations bring up the issue of slavery or not is really not the point, nor is the prime issue whether slavery caused the Civil War. What is the point is that these proclamations are really a collective White call to arms, a desperate Dixie shout to reverse the demographic changes that are inevitable and inexorable in this country.
Remember that six former Confederates, including General Nathan B. Forrest, founded the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee right after the Civil War, and a vast majority of the night riders–whether called the Knights of the White Camellia, the Redlegs or other such notorious names–were former Rebel soldiers, including many such groups in Virginia.
The political history of Reconstruction after the War is the story of terror tactics being employed by former Confederates to reverse the Union’s battle-scarred victory and to re-enslave the Black population (tenant farming, sharecropping, etc.). The real connection to the Confederacy is this threat to return to White terrorism to re-shape American realities into a more familiar image. Confederate history indeed.
Watch out, people. More than earthquake temblors are shaking around here.
David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.