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Virginia Retires A Racist Relic

ByBill Schneider/CNN

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WASHINGTON (Jan. 31) -- In his book "Southern Politics," renowned political scientist V.0. Key, Jr., called Virginia a "political museum piece." This week, Virginia got another relic to put in its museum -- the state song, "Carry Me back to Old Virginny."

The song, written in 1875 by a black minstrel singer from New York, of all places, has been Virginia's official state song since 1940. But it has not been played in schools or sung at state functions in 20 years. Why not?

Listen to the lyrics: "That is where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go/That's where I labored so hard for old Massa."

The song exudes nostalgia for the glorious days back on the plantation, where happy slaves toiled lovingly for their kindly masters. What a crock.

"It's repugnant to me personally and a sizeable segment of Virginians," says state Sen. Henry Marsh.

The issue has come up in the state legislature every year since 1988. Change has always been blocked by conservative state senators who see the song as part of Virginia's heritage. Things change slowly in Virginia, and always with dignity and decorum. This is Virginia, after all, not Louisiana.

Henry Marsh

But change they do. A Democratic bastion for 100 years, today Virginia has a Republican governor. Republicans have reached parity with Democrats in the state Senate. So guess what happened Tuesday? The state Senate finally voted to retire the state song.

They didn't vote to abolish it. That would be too extreme and un-Virginian.

They voted to retire it. The Senate voted to change its status to "state song emeritus."

"We need to put it in a museum, up on a shelf, and recognize it as a part of our past and not of our future," said state Delegate Jerrauld Jones.

It was a dignified and decorous solution: We don't want the thing any more. Let's give it to the museum. And who led the way? It was Republicans.

Republican state senators voted 17-3 to retire the song. Democrats voted 12-7 against it. Most Democrats wanted the offensive song abolished, not retired. They don't want it in the museum.


Why did Republicans lead the way? They're unlikely to get many black votes. But it will help them with moderate white voters, many of whom have moved to Virginia in recent decades and feel no reverence for the state's legacy of slavery and racism.

It's the same reason why, last year, South Carolina's Republican Gov. David Beasley called for the removal of the confederate battle flag from the dome of the State Capitol.

Republicans do these things at a risk. Direct-mail contributions to the South Carolina GOP have fallen off since Beasley's move. Southern Republicans like Beasley, Virginia Gov. George Allen and House Speaker Newt Gingrich see themselves as the New South.

The racist tradition of the Old South is not a Republican tradition, and they want no part of it. It opens them up to charges by Democrats that Republicans play the racial card.

Remember what President Bill Clinton said earlier this month in his speech to the Democratic National Committee: "Beginning nearly 30 years ago they began to subtly use, and then sometimes not so subtly use, rhetoric to divide our people one from another. First on race, and then later there were divisions based on religion and politics. which made it much more difficult for us to come together."

Virginia Republicans made a play for moderation this week, and they did it in the Virginia tradition of dignity and compromise. They did it without debate. Debate means disagreement and disagreement is, well, disagreeable.

We'll call it the political Play of the Week, but we'll have to do it quietly. The idea of Virginians engaging in a political "play" might appear frivolous and unseemly.

What really made the difference in the Senate vote was turnover. The old guard is passing. Eight of the nine freshmen state senators voted to retire the song. The bill orders the committee to find a new song by the middle of next year.

I'm a Virginian by birth, and I'm trying to come up with something. I'm thinking, "Don't Cry for Me, Old Dominion." I'm thinking, Madonna. Hey, this could be big.

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