South Carolina’s lesson for Congress
Potshots and posturing are the wrong way to address a complex racial history.
AFTER A terrible tragedy, congregants at the Emanuel African-Methodist Episcopal Church wished mercy on the man accused of gunning down their friends and relatives. From that remarkable act of forgiveness, grace seemed to spread. Across South Carolina, the last state in the country where a Confederate battle flag still flew proudly just yards from the legislature, lawmakers began to call for change. Even those who had championed the symbol for years listened. On Friday, the flag came down.
In Washington, meanwhile, a similar debate became an opportunity not for engaging in a challenging conversation but for political potshots and posturing. In a spending bill, Democrats included a prohibition on Confederate symbols at national cemeteries. When some Republicans noticed, they introduced an amendment to the legislation explicitly reversing the rule. Democrats fired back and piled on another resolution: All rebel imagery in the U.S. Capitol had to go, and Mississippi’s Confederate-inspired state flag with it. Anger brewed and insults flew on both sides of the aisle.
Washington could stand to learn from South Carolina. Putting politics first only distracts from the difficult but essential discussion of what role the United States’ fraught racial history should play in the present day. In the end, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was right to make Congress step back and sit down to talk about Confederate symbols on federal territory. Mr. Boehner’s bipartisan working group will take stock of rebel statues and other memorabilia, both in the Capitol and on other government grounds. Then, it will decide what to do with them.
Those decisions may not be easy. As we’ve said before, we can acknowledge even the worst of our history without celebrating it. But simple as that might be in principle, it could prove complicated in practice. A high-flying Confederate flag is one thing. Statues and monuments are another. Does Jefferson Davis have a place in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall? Should we raze the many Confederate monuments on old battlefields such as Gettysburg? Those historical artifacts tell tales of the past, yet they also bring pain to the Americans who suffer and whose ancestors suffered from the cruelty they sometimes appear to glorify.
The answer might be tomake our city streets and government halls look more like a good museum. For every statue of Robert E. Lee or John C. Calhoun, we need another symbol that shows someone who fought against hate — in wartime, yes, but also during Reconstruction, through the civil rights movement and beyond. If our national landscape is to tell America’s story, it should tell it in full: not just through those who sought to tear the country apart but also through those who have worked and are still working to put it back together.