Celebrating Confederate History Month

Let's join Virginia's governor in celebrating the Civil War--as long as he's willing to face the whole truth about the Confederacy and its aftermath.

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Sometimes, black folks underestimate the amount of envy they create among some white people. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to celebrate Confederate History Month for the first time in eight years is likely a response to Black History Month. "They" had a month to highlight their achievements; we're entitled to a month to celebrate "ours."

Of course, the problem is that the histories are not, to borrow a favorite phrase of conservatives, morally equivalent. Black History Month was created to highlight people whose achievements have largely been excluded from mainstream American history. The narrative of Black History Month is rooted in the heroic 400-year effort of African Americans to be seen and treated as equal citizens of the United States and to participate in creating a more perfect union.

The narrative of Confederate History Month, well, it's already running into some controversy. In his original proclamation, McDonnell failed to mention the "s" word--then tried to say later that it was just one causes of the Civil War. His proclamation reads: "Whereas, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth's shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present..."

The proclamation goes on: "Whereas, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, '...all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.'"

The legacy of the Confederacy lived right into our present. Virginia's 1902 Constitution enforced what has been done by intimidation and officially removed the right of blacks to vote; the 1924 Racial Integrity Act declared that all Native Americans were to be treated as black. It was Virginia's own Sen. Harry Byrd who promoted massive resistance through his "Southern Manifesto" in the 1950s. It was Virginia that offered scholarships to whites who refused to attend integrated schools, and it was Virginia that in 1958 temporarily closed its high schools to prevent desegregation. The result, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia, was that by 1965, just 12,000 of Virginia 235,000 black students attended integrated schools.

Most critics interpret McDonnell's action as yet another of those not-so-subtle plays by conservative Republicans to appeal to those who resent black progress and who feel they are losing control of the "real America." I suggest that instead of resisting the call for Confederate History Month, African Americans should support it--and flood the governor and the Daughters of Confederacy (and whoever else who will be involved) with proposals for seminars, lectures, meetings and C-SPAN telecasts that address the real motivation for a brutal war and its bloody aftermath. Black History Month long ago got past the "feel-good" phase and into some of the harsh realities of black history. Confederate History Month should not be separate or less equal in facing reality.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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