Christians Rally For Pro-Life At Outdoor Meeting -- Aug. 14, 1996
Beasley Confronts The Confederate Flag
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (Nov. 29) -- Sometimes politicians do surprising things. That happened in South Carolina Tuesday night, when Republican Gov. David Beasley delivered his first statewide television address since being elected in 1994.
When Beasley, a strong conservative who comes out of the religious right, campaigned for governor two years ago, he pledged to keep the Confederate battle flag flying over South Carolina's state capitol.
It's been there since 1962, when the state legislature voted to display the Confederate flag to mark the centennial of the Civil War and to show defiance against the civil rights movement.
This week, Beasley dared to revisit the issue in his address to the people of South Carolina.
"I have a question for us tonight," Beasley asked. "Do we want our children to be debating the Confederate flag in ten years?" The governor proposed a compromise: Stop flying the flag over the statehouse. Instead, let it be displayed over the Confederate monument on the capitol grounds.
Said Beasley: "I am asking the leadership of both sides to meet me halfway. Let's end this debate once and for all."
What prompted Beasley's sudden change of heart? Hate crimes, for one thing. South Carolina has been plagued by church burnings, a drive-by shooting and other racially motivated crimes committed by people who have adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of race hatred.
"Hate-filled cowards cover their heads and meet under the cloak of night, scattering their seeds of racism in the winds of deceit about the flag and its meaning," Beasley said.
Beasley, who pointed out to the voters that his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy, insisted that the flag was a symbol of honor and had been misappropriated by racists.
"Our children will be able to visit the statehouse, see the flags flying above the Confederate monuments and learn of their true meaning, which has nothing to do with racial hatred," he said.
African-Americans might argue with the governor on that point. Wasn't the Confederate flag used to rally support for human slavery?
Defenders of the flag were quick to point out the inconsistency in the governor's argument.
Attorney General Charlie Condon declared: "If that flag is a symbol of honor, as the governor and I agree that it is, then there should be no controversy. Why are we even here talking about it? On the other hand, if it is a symbol of racism and hate, then it shouldn't be flying at all, at any place or at any time."
The real problem is that the flag has become an embarrassment for South Carolina, the only state that officially files the Confederate flag.
"It is also inexcusable when we are called a racist state," Beasley said. "We are not."
It is particularly an embarrassment for business interests because it hampers industrial recruitment and hurts the state's economic growth. Beasley's critics had an answer for that argument, too.
"We should never, never compromise our principles for money," Condon said.
Racism is also an embarrassment to the religious right and the Republican Party. They do not want to be linked to the defense of the white South, as articulated by a Beasley critic.
"There are prominent opponents in South Carolina, very often clergy, who consistently spew forth red-hot rhetoric, stereotyping and castigating supporters of the flag as racists and using unflattering language to insult the heritage of the majority," said State Sen. Glenn McConnell.
This was a daring move by Beasley, one that only a conservative could have made. It is not without risk, since moving the flag must still be approved by the state legislature, but the payoff could help change the image of the South, the Republican Party and the religious right. It could also make Beasley a national player, the religious right's first true coalition-builder.
But the immediate payoff is the political Play of the Week.
Beasley told the voters his speech was "the most important 15 minutes I've ever spent with you."
The next day, Beasley won support from five former governors of South Carolina -- two Republicans and three Democrats -- and even Sen. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948, defending segregation. The state's political and business establishment is pulling together behind the governor.
That can only raise Beasley's stature in the state, the national GOP and the religious right.
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