Don't Carry Me Back to Old Virginny

The flap over Confederate History Month recalls the mean, mean side of the Old Dominion.

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segregation
Segregated King George School - Getty Images - Alfred Eisenstaedt

When I was a kid in Washington back in the 1950s, I used to watch my dad's face change whenever we had to drive across the bridge into Virginia. His jaw would clinch, his eyes would harden, and his body would assume a determined but wary posture, as though he were preparing to enter a battle zone.

In a way, that was exactly what he was doing. In those days before the Brown v. Board decision, Washington was a segregated southern city, but compared to Virginia it was a racial paradise.

The Old Dominion was a place whose governors led the "massive resistance" campaign against school desegregation and where local officials like those in Prince Edward County shut down the entire public school system rather than allow black children to sit in the same classroom as white children. It was, in short, a mean, mean place that camouflaged its viciousness beneath a veneer of drawling Southern gentility while courtly so-called intellectuals like James J. Kilpatrick served up platitudinous rationales for keeping Negroes in their separate and decidedly unequal place on the editorial page of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

All that seemed like ancient history when I moved to Richmond almost four years ago. The Times Dispatch, for example, had a black editor. The governor, Tim Kaine, was a liberal Democrat and former civil rights attorney; his father-in-law, Linwood Holton, had been the moderate Republican governor who a generation earlier had finally halted Virginia's defiance of integration and placed his own children in mostly black Richmond public schools. More proof that Virginia had entered a new era came in 2006, when U.S. Senator George Allen, a neo-segregationist Republican, lost his seat to Jim Webb, a moderate Democrat, after he was caught on videotape hurling an ethnic slur at an Asian American on Webb's staff.

The icing on the cake arrived two years later when Barack Obama moved Virginia from the red column into the blue, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won the state in 40 years.

I thought the millennium had come.

Curses, foiled again.

Last November, a bland-looking Republican named Bob McDonnell clobbered a hapless and rather unattractive Democratic opponent to put the governorship back in GOP hands. Another Republican, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II, became state attorney general. And ever since they were sworn in back in January, the two officials have been hell-bent on driving Virginia back into the bad old days from whence I thought it had escaped.

And then, last week, the contretemps over McDonnell's proclaiming April as Confederate History Month, without even mentioning the issue of slavery, a blatant cave-in to those who cling to the romantic, phony myths about Virginia's past. The move was so blatant and so ugly that the New Virginia immediately began fighting back against this literal whitewashing of history and McDonnell soon conceded that he had made a big mistake and apologized.

But it shouldn't have been necessary for blacks and their allies to protest for a 21st-century governor to know that paying homage to the legacy of the traitors who were willing to dismantle the nation in order to preserve their right to hold other human beings in bondage—men whose triumphant images are enshrined in statues along Richmond's Monument Avenue—is divisive and offensive. As Obama reminded us in an interview with ABC, "when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion, that, you know, we'd better do so thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people." Amen to that, but in McDonnell's and Cuccinelli's Virginia, I'm not sure that message is being heard. These days, when I drive home to Richmond from my day job in Washington, I get that same clench-jawed, hard-eyed alert but wary attitude my dad used to put on when we drove into Virginia 50 years ago.

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