Mississippi governor Phil Bryant recently proclaimed April to be Confederate Heritage Month , adding an official flourish to a longstanding tradition in his state and several others. April, he wrote in the proclamation, is “the month in which the Confederate States began and ended a four-year struggle”.
Bryant’s proclamation does not mention the central cause of the struggle – slavery – but instead announces the month as a chance to “gain insight from our mistakes and successes” and to “earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities which lie before us”. It also sets aside 25 April as “Confederate Memorial Day”.
The proclamation set off an outcry around the state. Bryant may have expected less-than-universal acceptance of his declaration: he did not issue it on the official Mississippi state website, alongside other proclamations. Instead it appeared without notice on the site of the Sons of Confederate Veterans .
The SCV is a group dedicated to preserving the vestiges of southern rebellion – including the Mississippi state flag, which is the last in the nation to feature a version of the Confederate battle flag .
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leaders in Mississippi reacted by proposing a civil war remembrance of their own: Union Army Heritage Month.
“These white and black Mississippi patriots fought for the continuation of the United States of America as one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” Derrick Johnson, president of Mississippi’s NAACP, wrote to the Clarion-Ledger.
“Should not these soldiers be honored, too?”
Scores rallied on the steps of the capitol, in Jackson. They were diverse. Kathleen Chambers personified a shift in the state’s mentality: she is young and white, and instead of a southern drawl she spoke with the universal up-talk of young people.
“Any white people I know? They’re not OK with this,” she said to the local television station WAPT.
Of Bryant, she said: “He’s trying to turn a Confederate heritage into a good thing, when it’s not. It shouldn’t be celebrated. Especially we shouldn’t celebrate owning people in the past.”
Other states around the south – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and, until a few years ago, Virginia – celebrate similar months, with variations. Unlike Mississippi, Alabama’s proclamation keeps the cause of the war in view: “Our recognition of Confederate history also recognizes that slavery was one of the causes of the war, an issue in the war, was ended by the war and slavery is hereby condemned.”
Virginia may be a bellwether for the fate of the Confederate calendar. The last time Virginia declared such a month, in 2010, the backlash was immediate. On 8 April that year Governor Bob McConnell issued a lengthy apology to the citizens of his state and amended his proclamation.
“The proclamation issued by this office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission,” he wrote. “The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed.
“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.”
McDonnell injected this section into the middle of his proclamation: “WHEREAS, 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.”
In Mississippi, Bryant has showed no inclination to include such an acknowledgment. But Clay Chandler, the governor’s director of communications, told the Times-Picayune in Mississippi: “Like his predecessors – both Republican and Democrat – who issued similar proclamations, Governor Bryant believes Mississippi’s history deserves study and reflection, no matter how unpleasant or complicated parts of it may be.”
And, he said: “Like the proclamation says, gaining insight from our mistakes and successes will help us move forward.”
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