By Ariela J. Gross is John B. & Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law & History at the University of Southern California, and author of What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (2008).
On April 6, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell proclaimed April "Confederate History Month," a time to honor "the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today." McDonnell (pictured) declared that Confederate history "should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live." Why is the history of the Confederacy still relevant to the time in which we live today? Is it because today, yet again, white Southern leaders are urging their fellow partisans (Republicans now rather than Democrats 150 years ago) to "nullify" acts of the Federal government, and "tea party" activists are talking about secession? Is it because race continues to divide the country politically, with whites in the former Confederate states disproportionately opposed to the first Administration headed by an African American? No, according to McDonnell -- at least until the political firestorm that met his declaration yesterday forced him to backtrack and add a paragraph about slavery -- what made Confederate history relevant was "things important to Virginia" like "tourism."
Governor McDonnell has apologized, and amended his declaration with an incongruous paragraph adding that "it is important for all Virginians to understand 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 and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history." Well, it's good to know that McDonnell is at least thankful that the institution of slavery no longer exists in Virginia. But his acknowledgment that slavery "led to" (not caused) the Civil War sits in awkward juxtaposition with his characterization of the conflict as a "war between the states for independence."
The fact is, Confederate flags and Confederate History Months and other emblems of Lost Cause nostalgia draw on an ugly strain of white political culture that should no longer have a place in a state like Virginia, a state so transformed in recent decades that it turned blue on the electoral map in 2008, and in which African American guides at Monticello point out Sally Hemings' residence on the official tour of Jefferson's estate. The romance of the Confederate soldier who gave his life for the beautiful idea of state's rights is a tired myth; waving that tattered flag dishonors the descendants of Virginia's slaves, many of whom fought for the Union, and for freedom. Memorials to the Civil War, in which so many Americans lost their lives, are entirely appropriate; shrines to the Confederacy are a throwback to the "Redeemer" era of one hundred years ago when North and South "reunited" in white supremacy and invented memories of the Lost Cause. Acknowledgment of slavery or not, we don't need a Confederate History Month.