Whitewashing of Slavery Embarrasses Virginia Governor

Hate in the Mainstream

When Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell issued a proclamation this spring declaring April Confederate History Month, he neglected to mention a key part of that history: slavery.

The omission provoked an outcry not only from black lawmakers and the NAACP, but also from supporters, including a prominent black businesswoman and the Richmond Times Dispatch. McDonnell initially defended the decision not to cite slavery in the proclamation. "There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states," he told The Washington Post. "Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

Shortly afterward, McDonnell backtracked, apologizing in a statement and acknowledging that "the failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake." He added language to the original proclamation stating in part that "the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights." 

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Southern heritage group, launched the practice of urging governors to make proclamations 13 years ago when it wrote a tract that was signed by then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican. That statement also did not mention slavery, instead depicting the Civil War as a struggle for states' rights — despite the fact that the vast majority of scholars see slavery as the war's root cause. Allen's successor, Republican James Gilmore III, included a repudiation of slavery in his proclamation and eventually cut language referring to Confederate History Month. The subsequent two Democratic governors did not issue the proclamations.

McDonnell, a Republican, made the proclamation in response to a request from the SCV, which in recent years has seen racial extremists try to take control of the group.

The Virginia Division of the SCV was not pleased with McDonnell's reversal. In a lengthy statement, it commended McDonnell for issuing the Confederate History Month proclamation, but "absolutely refute[d] the claim that Confederate soldiers went to the field of battle for the sole purpose of preserving slavery as an intellectually dishonest argument." (In fact, McDonnell does not say that the Civil War was fought only over slavery.) 

The SCV wasn't alone in suggesting that McDonnell needn't apologize for a proclamation that failed to note the role of slavery. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said that people upset about the original declaration were "trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't amount to diddly." He said it "goes without saying" that slavery was bad. He also pointed out that his state's predominantly Democratic legislature had adopted similar statements without criticism.

In fact, that's not the only dubious declaration that the Mississippi Legislature has made. As in past years, the Mississippi House passed a resolution in February honoring high school student athletes who took part in "The Spirit of America Day" on March 1. Like the Virginia resolution, the Mississippi statement omitted an awkward fact: The day's events — including an awards ceremony and other events at the Capitol — were hosted by white supremacist lawyer Richard Barrett. Barrett, who was murdered in April after allegedly propositioning a young black man, led the Nationalist Movement and advocated striking down civil rights laws, deporting American minorities and sterilizing the "unfit."