Friday, January 30, 2004

RICHMOND — The Senate Rules Committee yesterday overwhelmingly approved a resolution that would designate April as Confederate History and Heritage Month — one of several Civil War-related bills moving through this General Assembly session.

In an 11-3 vote, the committee sent the resolution — sponsored by Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Campbell County Republican — to the full Senate, which will consider it next week.

Confederate heritage groups have chafed over Democratic Gov. Mark Warner’s refusal to officially recognize Civil War commemorations and have sought support from the Republican-dominated General Assembly. If the resolution passes the House and Senate, it does not need Mr. Warner’s signature.

“This is beyond the issue of slavery. It’s bigger than that,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, Culpeper County Democrat and one of the committee members who voted in favor of the resolution.

Confederate groups, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, have had the ear of many lawmakers this session.

Earlier this week, the Senate General Laws Committee unanimously passed a bill that would protect Virginia’s historic monuments, streets and bridges from being renamed, relocated or removed. Yesterday, that bill moved forward to the full Senate, where it will undergo two more readings before a final vote, which is expected to take place sometime next week.

Because of Mr. Warner’s refusal to recognize Civil War commemorations, the groups believe some Republican lawmakers are more sympathetic to their cause. Mr. Warner’s criticism of the recent vandalism of the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue and others on Monument Avenue also has tipped things in the groups’ favor.

Others believe the release of the film “Cold Mountain” in December may have helped revive interest in Civil War history.

However, some lawmakers and the state NAACP are criticizing the efforts to commemorate the Confederate half of the war, and called the resolution “offensive.”

“When the state starts getting in the business of honoring the Confederacy, whose goal was African-American enslavement, we feel that has no place in the public domain,” said King Salim A. Khalfani, executive director of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It brings to light the cause of the Confederacy and they were clear they wanted to maintain the institution and even expand it.”

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, said the resolution was flawed, and asked it be renamed Civil War History Month. His efforts were unsuccessful.

“I’m not saying we should close the door on history,” Mr. Saslaw said. He said he couldn’t support celebrating a group of people who would have enslaved 20 percent of Virginia’s population.

Mr. Saslaw, Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Arlington County Democrat, and Committee Chairman Thomas K. Norment Jr., Gloucester County Republican, voted against the resolution. No blacks sit on the committee.

However, the Rev. Wilson E. Shannon, a black minister from First Baptist Church in Richmond, said issuing the proclamation could stop the polarization of races.

“It’s time we celebrate history in a way that shows parity,” he said, alluding to the Black History Month that begins tomorrow. “There is pain when we investigate the past but also pride.”

Mr. Shannon told The Washington Times after yesterday’s hearing that he hopes recognition of the Confederate history will help to end racism by teaching today’s youth about its ancestry.

“It’s about people who stood and were courageous defending the home front,” Mr. Shannon said. “…Learning the history kids will say, ‘Hey, that was your granddad, this is my granddad.’ There will be less polarization among races.”

Brag Bowling, commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the resolution has nothing to do with slavery. “No one in this room or state anymore believes that slavery was right,” he said.

Earlier this month, The Times first reported that Mr. Warner is being criticized for steering clear of officially recognizing Civil War commemorative events.

Civil War groups on both sides of the Confederate-Union split said Mr. Warner should try to be less politically correct and pay more attention to the historical significance of the war.

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls had said the governor has no intention of issuing any proclamations related to the war, fueling a many-years controversy surrounding Civil War holidays in Virginia, where a majority of the war’s battles were fought.

The practice of issuing gubernatorial decrees about the Civil War or the Confederacy dates back at least to former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s term. In 1990, Mr. Wilder, the nation’s first black governor and a grandson of slaves, proclaimed April 7-15 the “Final Chapter of the Civil War Days,” recalling “those who sacrificed in this great struggle.”

His document praised Lee, but it also lauded President Abraham Lincoln and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Also, Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, did not remove portraits of Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from his office while he was governor from 1990 to 1994.

While governor of Virginia, Sen. George Allen, a Republican, issued a Confederate History Month proclamation all four years he was in office, prompting moderate protests.

Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III proclaimed April as Confederate History Month three of his four years in office. In 2000, Mr. Gilmore replaced that proclamation with one commemorating both sides of the Civil War, enraging Southern heritage groups. That was the last time the month was officially recognized by Virginia politicians.

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