I’ve thought a lot over the past month about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s decision to revive the practice of “recognizing” April as Confederate History Month. It is easy, and perhaps accurate, to chalk it up to politics. There has been no such recognition during the past eight years when Mark Warner and Tim Kaine–both Democrats–held the office of governor. By reviving the practice, McDonnell appeals to conservative Republicans who talk of supporting state’s rights and opposing federal intrusion. It would also be easy for a supporter of McDonnell’s proclamation to dismiss the concerns of someone like me as a Northerner who can’t possibly understand.

I understand this: highlighting Confederate History in the way Governor McDonnell did last month does nothing to help heal wounds that still fester from the Civil War that ended in 1865.

Events in our nation’s history have occurred in the month of April that deserve recognition by the state of Virginia, and all American citizens, for their significance in connection with our difficult journey to become the “more perfect union” envisioned in our Constitution. Our Union was preserved when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln drew his last breath less than a week later on April 15, 1865 in a bed across the street from Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. where he had been shot the night before. Jackie Robinson played his first game as a Dodger–and broke Major League baseball’s “color barrier”–on April 15, 1947. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 seven days later on April 11.

From Governor McDonnell’s proclamation:

WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse;

By recognizing April as the month Virginia joined the Confederacy, Governor McDonnell took a giant step backward on the road to equality and justice for all.

The act of violating allegiance to one’s government is treason. This is what Virginia and ten other states did in 1861 when they voted to secede from the United States of America. President Lincoln rejected the secession and ordered military action to preserve the Union. No country on earth recognized the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. Virginia has been one of the states of this Union–with the exception of four years from April 1861-April 1865–since independence was declared in 1776. In other words, Virginia acted as though it was not one of the United States for a total of four years out of our nation’s 234 year history. And the act of secession in April 1861 is the moment in Virginia’s long, glorious history that Governor McDonnell chose to celebrate?

Many reasons have been given for why the Confederate States chose to secede. States rights vs. federal rights, economic and social differences between the agrarian South and industrial North, Southern honor, the growth of the abolition movement in the North, and the election of Abraham Lincoln–who many in the South believed was completely unsympathetic to their beliefs–were all contributing factors. At the core of all of these concerns was the South’s insistence on the preservation of slavery which was the foundation of the economies of the Southern states. White people owned black people so that white people could benefit economically from the forced labor of black people.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell decided to officially recognize an act of treason in support of white supremacy.

In his original proclamation, Governor McDonnell failed to mention slavery in connection with the Confederacy and the Civil War. A firestorm erupted. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour defended McDonnell, saying that the controversy over the original proclamation was “…trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.” Yet McDonnell apologized and revised the proclamation.

My intention here is not to beat up on Virginia or the South. One key point of our DeWolf family journey–as evidenced in the film Traces of the Trade and my book Inheriting the Trade–is to highlight the North’s complicity in the slave trade, the nationwide system of slavery at our nation’s founding, rampant racism in northern states throughout our history, and the North’s willful white-washing of its own sordid history in this regard. My home state of Oregon, for instance, became a state in 1859. Oregon’s constitution at that time prohibited the immigration of free blacks into the state. 89% of voters supported this provision. 75% of voters also rejected slavery in Oregon. The voters of Oregon overwhelmingly wanted an all-white state.

John Wilkes Booth was not a southerner. He was born to a prominent Maryland family of first generation immigrants from England. Yet his sympathies, like those of many people in the North (some officials in New York debated seceding with the South because slavery was key to their own economic prosperity), lay with the South. He volunteered to guard against the escape of John Brown after the rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and witnessed Brown’s execution. Booth blamed abolitionists for divisions in the United States. He stood mere yards from Lincoln when the President gave his second inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol building and later bragged to a friend, “What an excellent chance I had to kill the President if I had wished!”

No, my intention is not to beat up on the South. It is to take strong exception to Governor McDonnell’s proclamation and hope that no Southern governor will replicate his folly in the future.

WHEREAS, this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians…

I hope that most people would agree that the “defining chapter in Virginia’s history” is the efforts of its citizens over the past 145 years to repair the human damage caused by slavery and racism, to support our republic, and to commit itself to further the understanding of what it means to be a “free” nation of all people; not just white people.

Governor McDonnell’s proclamation drew support from those who seem to long for a civilization Gone with the Wind. Those days are thankfully over, Governor. And that is significantly more than “diddly.”