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McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation irks civil rights leaders

By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A01

RICHMOND -- Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, reviving a controversy that had been dormant for eight years, has declared that April will be Confederate History Month in Virginia, a move that angered civil rights leaders Tuesday but that political observers said would strengthen his position with his conservative base.

The two previous Democratic governors had refused to issue the mostly symbolic proclamation honoring the soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. McDonnell (R) revived a practice started by Republican governor George Allen in 1997. McDonnell left out anti-slavery language that Allen's successor, James S. Gilmore III (R), had included in his proclamation.

McDonnell said Tuesday that the move was designed to promote tourism in the state, which next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the war. McDonnell said he did not include a reference to slavery because "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

The proclamation was condemned by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP. Former governor L. Douglas Wilder called it "mind-boggling to say the least" that McDonnell did not reference slavery or Virginia's struggle with civil rights in his proclamation. Though a Democrat, Wilder has been supportive of McDonnell and boosted his election efforts when he declined to endorse the Republican's opponent, R. Creigh Deeds.

"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," he said. "It's one thing to sound a cause of rallying a base. But it's quite another to distort history."

The seven-paragraph declaration calls for Virginians to "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War."

McDonnell had quietly made the proclamation Friday by placing it on his Web site, but it did not attract attention in the state capital until Tuesday. April also honors child abuse prevention, organ donations, financial literacy and crime victims.

After a fall campaign spent focusing almost exclusively on jobs and the economy, McDonnell had been seen in recent weeks as largely ceding conservative ground to the state's activist attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II. The proclamation could change that view among Republicans who believe appropriate respect for the state's Confederate past has been erased by an over-allegiance to political correctness, observers said.

"It helps him with his base," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "These are people who support state's rights and oppose federal intrusion."

Said Patrick M. McSweeney, a former state GOP chairman: "I applaud McDonnell for doing it. I think it takes a certain amount of courage."

The Virginia NAACP and the state's Legislative Black Caucus called the proclamation an insult to a large segment of the state's population, particularly because it never acknowledges slavery.

"Governor McDonnell's proclamation was offensive and offered a disturbing revision of the Civil War and the brutal era that followed," said Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. "Virginia has worked hard to move beyond the very things for which Governor McDonnell seems nostalgic."

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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