By Deborah Mathis,
I will never forget the surreal experience in that little roadside eatery in Greene County, Alabama in 1995. Three young white men rolled up in a battered pick-up truck with the Confederate battle flag painted on its fenders. One of the men wore a t-shirt with the same flag sprawled across his chest.
The sole waitress, scooting from table to table, was a young black woman.
“How y’all doing today?” she asked, perkily.
“Doin’ fine. How you doin’?” one of the men shot back.
There was a quick joke about the heat and the dust, and then food orders were taken.
No big thing. Just another moment of supreme irony in the Deep South. White man wearing a symbol of southern, pro-slavery resistance making nice with a black woman whose great grandparents were probably slaves, maybe in the very same county.
It was yet another vestige of the American Civil War that confuses the issue. Such a scene seemed to fit the argument that the war was really about state’s rights and sovereignty, not about racial divides and enslavement. I could just hear the t-shirt wearer explaining that his flag was about honoring his great grandpappy’s service to the Rebel forces, not about keeping the waitresses’ ancestors down.
Such stances are, at best, delusional and denialist, but, more likely, deliberate deceptions. Maybe not so much when they come from an Alabama roughneck with no obvious higher learning under his heavily buckled belt, but certainly when they come from people wily enough to become governor of a state. Like Virginia’s Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell succumbed to the peculiar compulsion of certain southern politicians to kiss up to folks who are still steaming over a war that ended 145 years ago. By way of gubernatorial declaration – April is Confederate History Month! – McDonnell has encouraged Virginians to honor a start-up country-within-a-country that got its radical tail kicked to smithereens a century and a half ago.
Curiously – cunningly, creepily – McDonnell’s original declaration omitted any reference to slavery, as if the Confederate States of America, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, came into being because its 11 member states simply wanted to be in charge of their affairs. The truth, of course, is that they banded together because they were furious and fearful that the federal government was going to take away their beloved – and highly lucrative – practice of holding black people in bondage and making them work for nothing.
No matter what drove men to pick up their one-shooters and leave home to fight in woods and meadows and farm fields, perhaps never to return again, the rebel cause was unapologetically about preserving slavery. The constitution of the Confederate States of America makes that clear, forbidding the confederate congress from passing any “bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”
Coming at a time when tempers rage over federal intervention and imposition – and when the spirit behind another historical insurrection, the Boston Tea Party, has been resurrected – McDonnell’s timing is neither a coincidence, an afterthought or happenstance. He is signaling the malcontents that he is with them in their repulsion over a national government headed by a black man; with them in longing for the days of white power and privilege; with them in craving revolution.
Now that he’s done the deed, let us make something of it. Give an hour, or a few, to Confederate History Month. Read about how often the Virginians lost on the battlefields.
And about how Richmond, the capital of the Old Dominion and former capital of the CSA, was abandoned by CSA President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet.
And that, on their way out of town, Davis ordered his troops to burn the wartime facilities, only, they were either in too big a hurry or too inept to do it right and, thus, burned the whole city down.
And how, when the Confederate president was captured by Union troops a month later in rural Georgia, he was wearing his wife’s clothes.
And that the federal troops that marched into Richmond and occupied it, reclaiming it for the Union, were an almost all-black unit, the 25th Corps.
Surely, if McDonnell’s proclamation were really about history, not culture codes, he would want to bury it, not praise it.