The news that Virginia’s governor is embracing Confederate History Month has stunned civil-rights leaders, and why not? The proclamation makes no mention of slavery or the long fight to end the slave trade – an omission that today’s Washington Post calls “incendiary” in its editorial chastising of governor Bob McDonnell.
To anyone who has visited the American South, McDonnell’s action comes as no surprise. Almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the South still celebrates the principles of the Confederacy in ways that are stunning. A small example: In Memphis, Tennessee, a major park features an homage to Jefferson Davis, the slave-owning president of the old Confederate States of America. The tribute is in the form of a giant statue – a towering figure that hovers over the grounds in a way that the Statue of Liberty oversees New York harbor.
When I saw the Jefferson Davis statue on a 2007 visit to Memphis, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Why? Because Davis was the South’s mouthpiece on slavery – a man who defended its practice, a man who wrote a memoir rationalizing the South’s reluctance to take anti-slavery orders from “Northerners.” In his acclaimed book on Davis, Donald Collins (an emeritus history professor at East Carolina University) says Davis “believed firmly in slavery and the inferiority of African Americans.”
In his book (and a radio interview you can hear here), Collins says Davis became, in death, a martyr/hero to Southerners. There was a competition to see which Southern state would get to house Davis’ grave. Virginia won out. Davis is buried in Richmond, the old Confederate capital – and the state’s current capital, from where McDonnell issues proclamations like the one that is rankling people across the country.