Slavery 'Abhorred,' Gilmore Says
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 1998; Page C01
RICHMOND, April 9Gov. James S. Gilmore III today proclaimed April as Confederate History Month in Virginia but broke with recent tradition by adding a condemnation of slavery, managing not only to anger defenders of white Confederate heritage but to disappoint some civil rights leaders, too.
The leader of Virginia's Southern Heritage Association called it "an insult" and said Gilmore was bowing to "racist hate groups such as the NAACP." A state NAACP official, meanwhile, said he appreciated Gilmore's gesture but was hardly happy that Virginia would again officially celebrate the Confederacy.
The first-year Republican governor's attempt to bridge the wide gap between such viewpoints failed to bring peace to what is becoming an annual skirmish in Richmond, once the capital of the Confederacy, and came on the 133rd anniversary of the South's surrender at Appomattox.
Gilmore's predecessor, George Allen (R), had for the past three years signed a proclamation drafted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans calling the Civil War a "four-year struggle for [Southern] independence and sovereign rights," without mentioning slavery. That angered leaders of the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Today, in a carefully worded revision that capped weeks of speculation, Gilmore praised Southern generals and soldiers but also honored "the ordinary men and women, free and not free," who made the Confederacy a part of American history.
Gilmore's order called the war a "four-year tragic, heroic and determined struggle for deeply held beliefs," without naming them. He added, "Slavery was a practice that deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights [and] which degraded the human spirit. . . . We honor our past and draw from it the courage . . . to reconcile ourselves and go forward . . . together as Virginians and Americans."
That was enough to prompt white Southern history reenactors to condemn Gilmore for not being a "proud Southerner" at a news conference in the Capitol today.
"It's an insult," said R. Wayne Byrd Sr., president of Virginia's Heritage Preservation Association.
Byrd, an air-conditioning technician from Danville who pinned a tiny Confederate flag to his lapel, was joined by a half-dozen other business-suited Confederate enthusiasts, including former Virginia GOP chairman Patrick S. McSweeney.
Byrd went on to say he had "a problem" with Gilmore's calling slavery a cause of the Civil War and "an abhorred" practice.
"If you're talking about the Southern life on a plantation . . . where master and slave loved and cared for each other and had a genuine family concern, I do have a problem with it," Byrd said. "I don't see why these people [in the NAACP] have a right to tell me how to honor Southern heritage."
Across town, King Salim Khalfani, of the NAACP Virginia State Conference, had distinctly mixed feelings.
"We're not pleased that April once again will commemorate Confederate history and heritage month," said Khalfani, a descendent of slaves freed in Birmingham. "But Governor Gilmore did keep his pledge of being inclusive and respecting the horrors of African enslavement."
Tommy J. Baer, president of B'nai B'rith International and a Richmond lawyer, said Gilmore's well-meaning attempt didn't make much sense.
"It's like Germany having a World War II -- I won't even call it Nazi -- history month, but [saying], 'We're going to include the suffering of the Jews,' " Baer told Richmond television station WWBT. "It doesn't pass the common-sense test."
But former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), the nation's first elected black governor and the grandson of slaves, praised Gilmore for doing "what I don't think any white Virginia governor has done before in saying that slavery was the abomination that it was."
He had a sharp retort to Byrd's view of slavery. "For people who keep believing slavery was good, they should try being a slave sometime," Wilder told the Associated Press.
Gilmore, when asked about the criticism, said neither the NAACP nor any other group pressured him to add slavery to the proclamation.
"I drafted it the way I wanted," he said. "It's a good proclamation, and I was happy to issue it."
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