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McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation irks civil rights leaders

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.

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 Reconstruction.

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 Veterans.

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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