As most readers have probably heard, Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell got himself into hot water by declaring April “Confederate History Month,” in a proclamation that did not mention the rather pertinent fact that the Confederacy was a revolutionary (and by definition, treasonous) effort to maintain slavery against even the possibility of abolition.
After the predictable firestorm of criticism, McDonnell allowed that it must have been a mistake not to mention slavery in his proclamation. And then he repeated his rationale for the whole idea, which was, he claimed, simply a matter of promoting tourism in anticipation of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s outbreak. Tourism!
I’m sure most conservatives will consider McDonnell’s act of contrition sufficient, while many liberals will cynically conclude the whole thing was a dog whistle to the far Right, much like his earlier and less notorious commemoration of March 7-13 as Christian Heritage Week, in honor of the Christian Right’s revisionist theory that the Founders were theocrats at heart.
But as a white southerner old enough to remember the final years of Jim Crow, when every month was Confederate History Month, I have a better idea for McDonnell: Let’s have a Neo-Confederate History Month that draws attention to the endless commemorations of the Lost Cause that have wrought nearly as much damage as the Confederacy itself.
It would be immensely useful for Virginians and southerners generally to spend some time reflecting on the century or so of grinding poverty and cultural isolation that fidelity to the Romance in Gray earned for the entire region, regardless of race. Few Americans from any region know much about the actual history of Reconstruction, capped by the shameful consignment of African Americans to the tender mercies of their former masters, or about the systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens (and in some places, particularly McDonnell’s Virginia, of poor whites) that immediately followed.
A Neo-Confederate History Month could be thoroughly bipartisan. Republicans could enjoy greater exposure to the racism of such progressive icons as William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, not to mention Democratic New Deal crusaders in the South like Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo. The capture of the political machinery of Republican and Democratic parties in a number of states, inside and beyond the South, by the revived Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, would be an interesting subject for further study as well.
Most of all, a Neo-Confederate History Month could remind us of the last great effusion of enthusiasm for Davis and Lee and Jackson and all the other avatars of the Confederacy: the white southern fight to maintain racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when “Dixie” was played as often as the national anthem at most white high school football games in the South; when Confederate regalia were attached to state flags across the region; and when the vast constitutional and political edifice of pre-secession agitprop was brought back to life in the last-ditch effort to make the Second Reconstruction fail like the first.
Bob McDonnell should be particularly responsible, as a former Attorney General of his state, for reminding us all of the “massive resistance” doctrine preached by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd in response to federal judicial rulings and pending civil rights laws, and of the “interposition” theory of nullification spread most notably by Richmond News Leader editor James Jackson Kilpatrick.
Any Neo-Confederate History Month would be incomplete, of course, without reference to the contemporary conservative revival of states’ rights and nullification theories redolent of proto-Confederates, Confederates, and neo-Confederates.
Having flirted with such theories himself, Bob McDonnell probably wouldn’t be interested in discussing them in the context of Civil War history. But that’s okay: A greater public understanding of the exceptionally unsavory tradition that conservative Republicans are following in claiming that states can refuse to accept health care reform would be valuable without an explicit discussion of current politics.
So give it up, governor: If you are going to have a Confederate History Month, at least be honest enough to acknowledge that the legacy of the Confederacy didn’t die at Appomattox.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He is also managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.