Saturday, September 25, 2010

Remembrance of Things Past and Present

Speaking at a seminar on "Race, Slavery and Civil War" Virginia governor Robert McDonnell said, "One hundred and fifty years is long enough for Virginia to fight the Civil War." As the state approaches the sesquicentennial of its attempt at secession, McDonnell promised that next year he will issue a proclamation that acknowledges the broad sweep of the war in Virginia. He said it will be written to remember "all Virginians" - free and enslaved, and those who fought for both sides. Former governor Douglas Wilder, Virgina and the nation's first black governor, commented favorably, "The governor recognizes that we must observe real history, not revisionist history,"

Not everyone was impressed. Apparently 150 years is not enough.
McDonnell's announcement Friday drew sharp words, however, from Brag Bowling, the former commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"I think it's cowardly of him," Bowling said. "He didn't have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to his political enemies or the media."

Bowling accused McDonnell of selling out Virginia's Confederate descendants to make himself more palatable for a possible run for national office. "Our organization, to a man, will be opposed to this. There will be a lot of political fallout for doing this," Bowling said.

Tuning from present to past, 50 years ago the nation celebrated the Civil War Centennial. In the south where I lived the Centennial was was a definitely a celebration. In the north more of an observance, no doubt. As a young teen in southside Virginia the Centennial was for me mostly about how the South should have won and even if it technically lost the war, the South won some sort of moral victory which meant the South was actually better the the North. All this notwithstanding the fact that my family is from Pennsylvania. Anyone who was a teenager has moments of sheer bad judgment and ignorance. This is one of mine.

The Civil War Centennial came as black Americans began challenging the century of racism, discrimination and economic servitude that followed the Civil War. Naturally, we southerners found their demands to be another assault on all that was right and true in our world. Remembering the previous century's war fortified our belief in inherent rightness of the South. It was certainly the doorway to my racist years.

My youthful racism never amounted to anything violent or overt. It was more a way of thinking and making viewing myself and others, largely the product of my environment rather than family. My parents were Yankees and were no more likely to be racist than any other white adult of their generation. By the early 60's though, my father was dead my mother pretty passive so I was left to the influence of my peers and local prejudice. I drank deeply of that brew. I even became a Young Republican. As I said, it was a time of youthful bad judgment and ignorance.

I managed to grow out of all this in college. A new environment helped me shed what was, fortunately, not a deeply belief. But that history is still there. Acknowledging this past is a humbling experience. I don't like to admit that I was on the wrong side of one of the great moral issues of my lifetime but I was. It's part of my Permanent Record. I cannot erase that. Nor should I. To erase that past is to forget the lessons it taught me about justice and human rights. I will take responsibility for that past and embrace the knowledge it brought.

Which brings me back to Gov. McDonnell. His speech was an attempt at rehabilitation after his disastrous Confederate Heritage Month proclamation earlier this year.
"My major and unacceptable omission of slavery disappointed and hurt a lot of people - myself included. And it is an error that will be fixed." (my emphasis)
I won't gainsay his motives but McDonnell would sound more believable to me if he had spoken in the active voice. His words distance him from the actions he claims.

At that distance, McDonnell may not actually embrace the knowledge to be learned from his experience.

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