Post-9-11 Gesture Sparks Legislative Row
By Hank Shaw, Special to Stateline
A chorus of "ayes" filled the Virginia House of Delegates when Del. Bob McDonnell asked its 100 members if they wanted to adopt an old salute to the Virginia flag as a show of patriotism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Now he wishes he'd kept silent.
When the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the next day that the salute's author was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, black lawmakers were furious. All had voted for the salute, which was written in 1946, but several said they felt hoodwinked by the revelation.
"Finding out the day after is not a good way to do business," said Del. Dwight Jones of Richmond, a member of the Black Caucus. "It might be that they did not know the origins of the pledge, but it would have been preferable if they'd done some research first." The General Assembly first adopted the salute in 1954, months before the U.S. Supreme Court forced public schools throughout the South to admit blacks.
In protest, the caucus -- including the nation's only black woman Republican, Winsome Sears of Norfolk -- stands silently each day as the rest of the chamber recites: "I salute the flag of Virginia, with reverence and patriotic devotion to the 'Mother of States and Statesmen' which it represents -- the 'Old Dominion' where liberty and independence were born."
Welcome to the South, where even the high-minded patriotism sweeping state legislatures is fraught with old ghosts. Del. Albert Pollard Jr., a white Democrat representing the birthplace of Confederate Robert E. Lee, called it the "Southern duality."
"Love my country, love my state," Pollard said. "How do you respect your past and reconcile it at the same time?"
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black governor, said reciting a salute that might be written by a segregationist sends a poor message.
"Are we going to glory in our very painful past or are we going to move forward after Nine-Eleven and celebrate a New Dominion?" Jones said.
McDonnell, the salute's sponsor, said the Black Caucus is protesting over symbolism and not substance. "But we can't tell somebody else how they should feel," he said.
Sears, the Norfolk Republican, will not recite the salute in deference to the feelings of her majority-black district. But she too says the Black Caucus is riled up over very little.
"I'd like us to get off this and get on to substantive issues," Sears said. "We have budget problems and we're here fighting over words."
A week after the salute flap first exploded -- it has yet to be resolved -- another reminder of Virginia's Confederate past surfaced.
January 18 is Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, an official state holiday that was coupled with Martin Luther King Jr. Day until 2000. Virginia is believed to be the only state recognizing both days as official holidays.
Last year's commemoration -- an affair held in the Capitol's Old House Chamber in which gray-clad Civil War re-enactors spoke reverently of Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson -- went off quietly. But this year former Lt. Gov. John Hager was slated to be the keynote speaker.
Hager, a Republican, has been tapped for a cabinet-level position in the new administration of Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat. After a Warner spokeswoman called the event "divisive," and said Hager could only attend because he'd committed to speak a year ago, Hager got the message and bowed out. State Sen. Bill Bolling, a Republican who represents the county in which Jackson died in 1863, spoke instead.
"Virginia has a long history that can't be ignored," Bolling said in an interview. "Some parts of that history we're very proud of -- some parts we find intolerable by modern standards."
Bolling said he refuses to ignore that history, and would gladly speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event as well.