George Mason Law School

Confederate controversy

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April 13, 2007

5:12 PM

It appears the Politically Correct police are out and about again, this time down in the city of Suffolk. The Daily Press reported April 7 that Mayor Linda Johnson rejected the request of the Tom Smith Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to proclaim April “Confederate History Month.”

p. Along with the rejection, Johnson issued a statement saying, “It is my goal to work towards unity of all Suffolkians … of all heritages, faiths and ethnicities. All soldiers of all wars that have fought or died for their cause are to be honored and remembered. We do this on Veterans Day, Memorial Day and, hopefully, throughout our daily lives.”

p. Mayor Johnson’s sentiment of tolerance and inclusion is to be applauded, but her statement itself both misses the point and escapes the real issue of contention. A Confederate History month would be little different from the five other officially recognized history months already in the books, except that the South endorsed slavery. But is this reason enough to dismiss the remembrance of a distinct heritage?

p. While valid, the mayor’s argument that Confederate veterans can be honored just like any others misses the point that the requested Confederate History Month is about more than soldiers fighting in a war, but an entire culture. The SCV’s website makes it clear that they’re not just a group to remember fallen soldiers, but that they “serve as a historical, patriotic and non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.”

p. By passing this off as no more than a request for an extended Southern Memorial Day, Mayor Johnson (wisely?) manages to avoid going anywhere near the issue of race, but there seems to be little reason for her allergic reaction to the SCV’s request. Two years ago, Suffolk’s former mayor had no trouble issuing such a proclamation, and current Vice Mayor Curtis Milteer, himself a descendant of slaves, was of a similar mind when he was in charge of the city in 2002. Indeed, former Virginia governor George Allen declared April Confederate History Month for the entire commonwealth during his tenure, and one assumes he had a bit more at stake in the decision than the mayor of a relatively minor city. Nor is Virginia alone in this practice — it has regularly been joined by several Southern states and Ohio.

p. So, it appears that making April Confederate History Month has precedent, but if that in and of itself doesn’t confer acceptability, what does? Virginia’s colorful history leaves it inextricably linked to the Confederacy, and the point is that we should be hesitant to simply brush it aside. Admittedly, I’m no Civil War buff, but I’m fairly certain Virginia was important during it, what with Richmond, Bull Run, Appomattox and a litany of generals all calling it home. Telling Virginians that they can’t name a month to celebrate this history seems a bit like divorcing Vermont from Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, or Pennsylvania from the Quakers.

p. Even now, more than 140 years after the war, most people associate Confederate heritage with slavery. Yes, it’s impossible to separate the two entirely, but to keep reasonable people from promoting other aspects of their heritage for this reason alone seems unfair in modern times. Moreover, a Confederate History Month affords groups like the SCV the perfect opportunity to focus on educating people about parts of Southern culture unrelated to slavery.

p. Recently, a number of states, including Virginia, have issued formal apologies for the practice of slave-owning, and it’s almost silly to think anyone today would seriously find it acceptable. In the same vein, I seriously doubt the SCV made this request because they’re out to see the South rise again. More likely, they’d agree that the Southern states still maintain a distinct character, the product of a unique history and one which they’d like to celebrate. Why not give them the chance?

p. __Andrew Peters, a sophomore at the College, is a staff columnist. His columns appear on Fridays.__

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