Although he first made his name as the staunchest of states-rights segregationists, today Senator Thurmond and I have a lot in common. We're both Republicans (fourth generation, in my case), we're both conservative, and we're both South Carolinians who often find ourselves pushing fond recollections of our home state on friends.
During the course of our casual conversation in the senator's Washington office, he asked me how much I really knew about the Confederate flag that flaps over the South Carolina State capitol building. He proceeded to tell me about the flag's history atop the state house--not a history that stretches back to antebellum times or to the Civil War era but one that dates back only to the early 1960s.
The flag went up during the governorship of Fritz Hollings (now the Democratic junior senator from South Carolina) as part of the Civil War Centennial. And, Thurmond went on, it was originally supposed to be removed immediately after the centennial observance.
To my pleasant surprise, Senator Thurmond then said adamantly: "That flag should have come down in 1962. It should never have remained up." And he winked at me.
THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER, the Confederate flag remains mounted above the state house dome, a dual symbol of Southern heritage and racial divisiveness. The NAACP recently ignited op-ed sections across the country when it called for a tourism boycott of South Carolina until the flag is removed. (A majority of South Carolinians are in favor of taking it down.)
Here's the problem: white Southerners are the only Americans who have had to deal with losing a war, with having their cultural fabric torn apart. Robert Penn Warren and other Southern historians have pointed out that the South has dealt with this tragedy largely by romanticizing it: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and others were celebrated as gallant soldiers fighting against hopeless odds. And the Confederate flag became a nostalgic symbol of Southern heritage.
I don't believe that all white Southerners want to keep the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state house are anti-black. Or that the NAACP wants to remove the flag because it's anti-white Southerner.
But plainly the flag represents a lost cause of the past. It should not flap over any state house; it should instead be placed in a museum. Such an ignoble symbol communicates a disgraceful justification for enslaving an entire race, and ultimately the masters as well. It's an insult to the intelligence of any American citizen, black or white, to insinuate that Confederate soldiers were fighting for some high constitutional principle.
Were those who triumphantly signed the Southern Manifesto in 1954--pledging massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in schools--were they following a high constitutional principle? When those brown girls and boys escorted by the National Guard in Little Rock to take their rightful place in a public classroom were spat on and derided by white segregationists--were those segregationists moved by hatred toward a race or by constitutional concerns?
It was in the wake of just those struggles that the Confederate flag was mounted on South Carolina's capitol, as a symbol of defiance of the civil rights movement.
THE SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY is on February 19. You could say that the NAACP is playing hardball politics by choosing an election year to protest a flag that has flown over the state house for 38 years.
But the presidential candidates of my own party are playing politics too. George W. Bush and every other Republican presidential candidate except Alan Keyes have either refused to weigh in on the issue or have said that the flag should stay put if the people of South Carolina want it that way. None of them want to risk alienating pro-Confederate voters.
Despite what Governor Bush has said, flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capitol is more than just a state issue. It's a national issue--one that resonates with every American who understands that we can't support any relic of slavery or racial exclusion. The South Carolina primary might be in weeks, but the principle of racial equality is eternal.
To Senator Thurmond, who has taught me so much throughout my career, by way of example and through consistent advice, I now presume, with great humility, to offer the following career advice: Go with your conscience. There's no other American alive today whose voice on this issue would make more of a difference. Crown your many years of passionate and loyal service in the U.S. Senate by addressing the politicians and the people of your home state and of the nation. Tell them that the Confederate flag does not belong on top of the South Carolina state house, and exhort them to take it down.