RICHMOND The state chapter of the NAACP yesterday dropped its threatened boycott of Virginia’s tourism industry for now, after the group’s leaders met with Gov. James S. Gilmore III.
Both the Republican governor and officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Virginia conference appeared to back away from their strong positions yesterday, with Mr. Gilmore saying he’ll consider changing next year’s Confederate History Month proclamation.
Mr. Gilmore met with NAACP officials in the governor’s office in Richmond and afterward, at a joint news conference, they announced they have come to an understanding.
“I would characterize it as a warm meeting, and constructive,” the governor said. “I’m optimistic we can go forward now with an ongoing dialogue.”
Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP, said, “We will work with Governor Gilmore in his quest to hear from all sides in this issue.”
Mr. Gilmore said he will listen to what state residents have to say about the proclamation before deciding what, if anything, to issue next year. And the NAACP will postpone its call for direct action, including protests or a boycott of the state’s tourism industry. Both sides also agreed to meet regularly, probably every three months, to discuss issues of importance.
Joining Mr. Khalfani from the NAACP were state President Rovenia Vaughan, and Druscilla Bridgeforth, the chapter’s college and youth adviser. They met for about an hour with Mr. Gilmore, his chief of staff, Boyd Marcus, and Claude Allen, the state secretary of human resources, one of several blacks Mr. Gilmore has appointed to high office.
At issue is Mr. Gilmore’s yearly declaration of April as Confederate History Month a practice the NAACP and many black residents said is the same as glorifying slavery. Several other states issue similar proclamations.
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat and the nation’s only elected black governor, commemorated Robert E. Lee, President Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with a proclamation during his administration. His successor, George F. Allen, a Republican, declared April as Confederate History Month during his term.
But Mr. Gilmore angered both sides in 1998, his first year in office. He issued a proclamation, but included a line calling slavery “abhorrent,” which upset such heritage groups as the state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group said the line about slavery didn’t belong in a declaration they feel is meant to commemorate soldiers who fought and died in battle. The NAACP was upset that the governor had issued the proclamation at all.
Mr. Gilmore yesterday promised to canvass the state and gauge Virginians’ wishes for the proclamation. That is a change from his previous stance when the governor told reporters he expected to issue the same proclamation again next year, and defended it as inclusive enough.
Now, Mr. Gilmore said he had learned from the NAACP how some residents are “using our history as a weapon” to hurt other people. Mr. Khalfani pointed to hate groups using Confederate heritage as a guise, or students in Virginia calling impromptu demonstrations at school to display the flag.
Mr. Khalfani in the weeks leading up to the meeting had said anything less than a renunciation of the proclamation would be unacceptable. Yesterday, he said the governor’s proposal to wait to gauge public reaction was good enough for now.
“At this time, we have no plans for direct action,” Mr. Khalfani said.
Still, neither side called their new posture a change.
“I don’t think anybody is backing down here in any way,” the governor said.
The NAACP made it clear they expect some change in Virginia’s proclamation next year. But if the governor is serious about listening to state residents, he may be surprised by what he finds.
A 1997 Mason-Dixon poll, taken after the brouhaha over Mr. Allen’s declaration that year, showed widespread support for Mr. Allen. In that poll, 72 percent approved of honoring the state’s Confederate history. Twenty-three percent disapproved, and the rest were not sure. Black residents approved of the idea 54 percent to 44 percent.
Administration officials deemed yesterday’s meeting a success. They considered the threat of a boycott very real, and feel Mr. Gilmore brokered a stand-down.
But there is some question how real the boycott threat was.
Mr. Khalfani told reporters yesterday he never called for a boycott. He said he had talked about direct action, which could include a boycott, but had never threatened one.
At the same time, he told reporters this week he expected an answer from the governor by Memorial Day the start of tourist season so the group could plan its action.
Any boycott would first have to be approved by the NAACP state board, then by national officials. Both the national president and chairman of the board last week downplayed the threat of a Virginia boycott, saying the current boycott in South Carolina is still their main focus.