Obama critical of Confederate proclamation

By Olympia Meola
April 10, 2010

President Barack Obama weighed in on the latest controversy to thrust Virginia onto the national stage, saying yesterday that Gov. Bob McDonnell made "an unacceptable omission" by not mentioning slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation.

The Republican governor said Obama was correct.

"I thought he was gracious and he was right," McDonnell replied yesterday when asked to comment on the Democratic president’s remarks.

The nation’s first African-American president made the comments about Virginia’s governor in response to a question in an interview with ABC News yesterday in Prague, where he signed a U.S.-Russia treaty to reduce nuclear arms.

"I don’t think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery," Obama said.

He added that he’s a "big history buff" and thinks "understanding the history of the Confederacy and understanding the history of the Civil War is something that every American and every young American should be a part of."

First lady Michelle Obama is a descendant of a South Carolina slave.

The president is the latest — but most high-profile — official to criticize McDonnell’s action. The governor said the original proclamation was meant to promote education and tourism, but days later he apologized for omitting any mention of slavery. He added language to the proclamation condemning slavery.

Obama said the controversy was "a reminder that when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion, that, you know, we’d better do so thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people."

McDonnell, meanwhile, has been reaching out to elected leaders, supporters and organizations that objected to his original proclamation, including a meeting Thursday with King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Khalfani and other officials in the group were highly critical of the governor’s proclamation for using "Confederate" as opposed to "Civil War" and for omitting a reference to slavery.

"Governor McDonnell apologized profusely and accepted responsibility during the meeting for his failure to include the horrors of African enslavement in his original proclamation. He also apologized for the breakdown in communications that led to ill feelings, and he assured the NAACP that it was not intentional and will never happen again," according to a news release sent yesterday by the NAACP.

The Virginia NAACP is still seeking repeal of the proclamation, which, according to the governor’s office, was issued at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

J. Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s director of communications, said the governor has also reached out to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and businesswoman and supporter Sheila Johnson, among others who disagreed with the original proclamation.

The NAACP canceled a specially called meeting of its executive committee scheduled for today at which it was to have addressed what it said was a "laundry list of issues" regarding the administration.

On The Web:   http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/news/state_regional/state_regional_govtpolitics/article/MCDO101_20100409-233402/336322/