South Carolina’s les­son for Congress

Pot­shots and pos­tur­ing are the wrong way to ad­dress a com­plex racial history.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

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.

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