US Senator George Allen during a rally in Springfield Springfield, Va., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)(Credit: Steve Helber)
Virginia Republican Senate candidate George Allen is perhaps best known nationally for calling a Democratic tracker a racial slur during his 2006 Senate campaign. That year, Ryan Lizza reported in the New Republic that Allen kept a “noose hanging on a ficus tree in his law office” and admitted to “prominently displaying a Confederate flag in his living room” when he ran for governor in 1993. This year, he’s managed to avoid embarrassing race issues, despite the best efforts of liberal critics to draw attention to his record.
But a video resurfacing today could make race an issue in the last two days of the campaign. The video shows Allen, then a member of the Virginia General Assembly, defending a song with racially insensitive lyrics. The song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” became the state’s official song during the Jim Crow era. In the 1990s, there were several attempts to retire the song or change its lyrics.
Written by black minstrel James Bland in the late 1880s from an earlier tune popular among Confederate soldiers, the song’s narrator refers to himself as a “darkey” and speaks of his “massa.”
The song attracted controversy, and in 1991, state lawmakers put forward a rewritten version omitting the offensive lyrics. When the changes came to the House floor, Allen stood to defend the old song, suggesting the state keep it as an official song, but add a second state song to appease those upset with the first one.
“I want to explain to the House why I am not going to be voting for this bill, and I want people to understand the context … It was not written in any way to offend anyone,” Allen said after being recognized by the speaker in the video passed to Salon by a Democratic source. “Although it’s offensive to many people, there are people in Virginia, Virginians, who like this song as written. And secondly, there are those people in Virginia who do not like revisions to historical matters and revisions of history.”
“I believe that we should not rewrite history in the official state song, but should rather have two state songs, have the original version, and the version written on the floor of the House of Delegates. And that is not unprecedented,” Allen continued, noting other states that have other state songs. He also noted that “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” is “understandably offensive to some people.”
“For this reason, I — and I reckon a few others — will be voting against this revision of history,” Allen concludes.
Immediately afterward, a black lawmaker takes the floor and remarks, “I’ll just say to the members of the House, I’m willing to go back a little bit, but not as far back as [Allen].” The bill passed.
A request for comment from Allen’s campaign was not immediately returned, but we will update when they respond.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for Allen’s campaign noted that as governor in 1997, Allen signed a bill passed by the Assembly to kill the song. “When the state song is played, it ought to bring pride in your heart and tears in your eyes,’ the Republican governor said. ‘It should not be an embarrassment,” he was quoted as saying by Daily Press of Newport News, Va., on Feb. 20, 1997.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.