Thompson: Heritage bill is dubious legislation
Just as I suspect many other Southerners are, I’m conflicted about the places in which my family history branches into the Civil War.
To establish my bona fides, just let me note here that my family tree includes Col. James Seale Austin, CSA, an 1861 graduate of The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, whose service included an attempt to stall Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s march across Georgia at the Oconee River in Central Georgia. You can, as they say, look it up.
On the one hand, when I think about those branches of the family tree with a Confederate soldier at the end, I feel no small pride in a heritage that includes people willing to take a stand for the right, as they saw the right.
On the other hand, I wish that a defense of slavery had not been part of their cause.
So it is with at least some swirling of emotions that I come to efforts to celebrate Confederate heritage, and that’s why Georgia Senate Bill 27 captured my attention to the extent I feel compelled to share some thoughts about it.
The bill, signed into law late last week by Gov. Sonny Perdue, designates April as Confederate Heritage and History Month, making Georgia the first state to enact such a law. Sponsored by Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, the back story on the bill is instructive.
Introduced in the Senate on March 12, the measure was eventually among the bills that got votes in the waning days and hours of the legislative session, a time in which harried legislators don’t necessarily pay full attention to every jot and tittle in every bill upon which they vote. Senate Bill 27 got its final vote in the Georgia House on April 1, and its final Senate vote at 7:38 p.m. April 3, slightly more than four hours before this year’s legislative session was gaveled to a close.
It’s a pity the bill didn’t get closer attention than it apparently got. Here’s one reason why: The rationale for the bill was that declaring April as a month for reflecting on Confederate history in what had been the Confederate heartland could boost tourism.
Here’s how the bill reads, in relevant part: "The General Assembly hereby finds and determines that tourism is a great economic resource in Georgia; and historical, heritage, and cultural inheritance are among the tourism industry’s most popular attractions. Georgia’s Confederate heritage, physical artifacts and battle sites, and historic events and persons not only attract visitors, they are potentially of even greater importance and benefit to our state’s economy. Increased development of our state’s Confederate history and heritage as part of the tourism industry will be enhanced through recognizing, celebrating, and advertising that heritage and history."
I may not know much, but I know when I’m getting snowed. Senate Bill 27 has nothing to do with boosting tourism; that was just the politesse within which it was framed to give its supporters some political cover.
The real purpose of Senate Bill 27, the reason it made its final way through the legislative process under the equivalent of the cover of darkness, was that its supporters were sending a signal to the state’s hard-right voting base, a signal that they stand squarely with the yahoos who display the Confederate stars and bars in the back windows of their pickup trucks and who fly the old state flag featuring those stars and bars on poles in their front yards.
Think about it for a minute. Anyone with a genuine scholarly, familial or even somewhat more casual interest in Civil War history is going to be aware of Georgia’s role in that history without having to be reminded of that fact in a legislative declaration of Confederate Heritage and History Month. Anyone with an interest in Georgia’s place in the Civil War is going to be motivated to visit the state’s battle sites and other points of interest whether the state has or hasn’t made some official declaration of its interest in having them visit those sites.
And, too, there’s the wholly disgraceful aspect of a bill that, in essence, declares the bloody and tragic Civil War to be nothing more than a tourist attraction.
I’m certain that the governor’s signing of Senate Bill 27 is being hailed by people of good will, people who have a true, deep, thoughtful and abiding reverence for their Southern heritage, as a step toward sanctioning their interest in a problematic period in history.
I just don’t think that all of the people who gave them that sanction have much reverence for anything other than figuring out what they can do to gain some political advantage in the next election cycle.
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