Governor retracts slavery snub

2010-04-08 09:23

Washington - Amid growing national criticism, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell apologised late on Wednesday for not acknowledging slavery in a proclamation he signed declaring April "Confederate History Month".

McDonnell recognised he had made a "major omission" in not citing slavery, a practice that sparked the 1861-1865 Civil War between the Union of 20 free states and five border slave states and the 11 southern slave states that declared they were seceding to form a Confederacy.

"The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologise to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed," McDonnell said.

"The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation."

But the Republican governor did not rescind his original statement, instead adding language that recognised slavery had started the Civil War.

Insensitive to racial concerns

His largely symbolic proclamation, seen as a move to build up support among conservatives, had revived controversy over Virginia's Confederate past and angered civil rights leaders.

Democratic National Committee chairperson Tim Kaine, McDonnell's predecessor, said the move showed Republicans were insensitive to racial concerns.

McDonnell's two Democratic predecessors had refused to issue the declaration honouring soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War out of concern it would insult African-Americans, who make up around 20% of the state's population.

In explaining his decision, McDonnell initially said on Tuesday that the proclamation would help boost tourism in Virginia ahead of the war's 150th anniversary next year. Virginia was the site of many of the war's battles and the state capital Richmond also served as the Confederate capital.

The governor said he did not refer to slavery because "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones that I thought were most significant for Virginia".

Disrespecting history

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) both condemned McDonnell's decision.

NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous said the move "disrespects history and the people of Virginia".

In apologising for his initial proclamation, McDonnell announced he was revising the text to add a paragraph criticising slavery.

"It is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history," the new paragraph read.

Some Virginia lawmakers were not satisfied.

"He has a right to apologise, but I don't accept that. This is a pattern of this governor. He says the wrong thing. He makes an apology. This has happened many, many times," Democratic Virginia state Senator Henry Marsh told CNN.

"I expect respect from him toward me and my constituents. If he continues to do this, I'm not going to believe his apologies. So far, he's starting on the wrong foot."

Apology accepted

Doug Wilder, the first elected African-American governor in US history, told CNN he welcomed McDonnell's apology and revisions to the declaration.

"I think it's the right thing for him to have done, because most people recognise that slavery was the cause of the war," said Wilder, who removed Confederate insignia from Virginia National Guard uniforms when he served as the state's governor in the early 1990s.

But Richard Hines of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that had urged McDonnell to make his declaration, said the governor "deserves a great deal of credit for issuing the confederate history month proclamation and he certainly hasn't retracted that".

Virginia is dotted with Civil War battlefields and is seeking to promote its struggling museums, which include the "White House" of the Confederacy that was once home to Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.