The Confederate Flag: "A Controversial Symbol" (ABC-TV's NIGHTLINE)t

A Controversial SymbABC-TV's "Nightline"
Monday, July 26, 1999
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)

CHRIS WALLACE It seems that during the first battle of Bull Run, southern General PG Beauregard (ph) could not distinguish his flag from the Yankee stars and stripes. And so he commissioned what became known as the Confederate battle flag, that distinctive crisis_cross of 13 stars against a field of red. It has been 134 years since the Confederate flag was last carried into battle. But in the decades since, it has been a symbol of southern pride, resistance to the civil rights movement, outright racism and good ole boy rebellion. Now, on the brink of a new millenium, it has also started one more battle. The Confederate flag still flies over South Carolina's state capital and two weeks ago the NAACP announced a boycott, that it is trying to get black groups and individuals to stop visiting the state until the flag comes down. It's an issue that cuts close to the bone for both blacks and whites in South Carolina, as ABC's Mike von Fremd reports.

MIKE VON FREMD, ABCNEWS (VO) From the plantations with the thick moss hanging from the old oaks to the narrow city streets to the harbor, there is good reason so much of Charleston looks as if time has stood still. Many here feel the need not just to preserve the past, but to protect it. State Senator Glen McConnell owns a store that specializes in Confederate memorabilia. (interviewing) When you see that flag being raised up, what do you see?

SEN GLEN MCCONNELL I see honor, courage, valor. I see the red, white and blue and the blood of sacrifice that ran through that battle and the people that carried that flag. I don't see black and white. I don't see racism.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) But racism is exactly what others see.

1ST BLACK SOUTH CAROLINIAN When I see the flag I see oppression. I see segregation. I see slavery and all of the things that are a disadvantage to the Afro_American people.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) At the Boone Plantation in Charleston, where many tourists are eager to see the grandeur in the main house, the Vernon family from North Carolina was much more interested in a different part of the plantation, the slave quarters.

1ST FAMILY MEMBER Eighteen to 25 people living in one ...

2ND FAMILY MEMBER One room.

3RD FAMILY MEMBER I wouldn't want to live like that.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) The family gets together once a year for a reunion. They say they will not be coming back to South Carolina next year unless the flag is removed.

4TH FAMILY MEMBER Slavery is a thing of the past that everybody should be ashamed of.

MIKE VON FREMD And does flying that flag perpetuate it in some way?

4TH FAMILY MEMBER Oh, absolutely. It represented the worst in America. And most decent Americans don't want to see as a symbol the worst in America. We want to see the best in America.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) It was here in Charleston's harbor 138 years ago that the first shots of the Civil War were fired. It was a very different struggle, the 30th anniversary of the Charleston hospital workers' strike, that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference hoped to honor this week at its annual convention. This hotel had been reserved and many had purchased non_refundable airline tickets. Fliers promoting speakers such as Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson had already been printed and circulated. But then the NAACP called for a nationwide boycott of South Carolina. REV E. RANDEL OSBURN, SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE Some of us felt shocked, others felt disappointed and some even felt a bit betrayed. But what we all felt was that it was the right thing to do to call for the removal of the flag from flying in this state.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) Martin Luther King, III, the new president of the SCLC, held a rally here last night encouraging supporters to make the boycott hurt. MARTIN LUTHER KING, III, SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE There's a $6.5 billion tourism economy here and of that $6.5 billion, black folk make up $2.5 billion of it. And when black folk decide not to spend dollars, change comes.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) Other African_American churches here are now spreading the word.

REV JOSEPH DARBY Tell folk if they ask if it's for real that the boycott is real, that everybody is in it for the long haul and that if God is in it, victory will be ours. If you believe it, let the church say amen.

CHURCH CONGREGATION Amen.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) Many here who love the flag say they deplore the hate groups such as the KKK and the skinheads who've adopted the battle flag as their symbol.

SEN GLEN MCCONNELL It hurts us to see groups like the Klan holding that flag. You want to talk about a sick feeling? Our group, our historical groups, we are disgusted when we see it. But we're equally disgusted and sickened by the political rhetoric and people say it's an emblem of racism, it's an emblem of hate, it's shameful and all of this. How do they think we feel when it's the emblem of our ancestors? They hurt our feelings.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III This symbol that may have something to do with one's heritage perhaps belongs in a museum but not to be flown over the state capital. It is something that we will not and we cannot tolerate because enough is enough.

MIKE VON FREMD (on camera) Several years ago, political leaders thought they had found a solution to this long_simmering problem. The flag would have been taken down from atop the capital dome but raised above the Confederate monument at the steps leading up to the capital. (Clip from commercial)

GOV DAVID BEASLEY Thank you for joining me tonight.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) In 1996, then Governor David Beasley went on statewide prime time television. He pleaded with voters to support his compromise. (Clip from commercial)

GOV DAVID BEASLEY I'm asking the leadership of both sides to meet me halfway. Let's end this debate once and for all.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) The debate did not end and the governor, in part because of the flag issue, lost his job.

GOV DAVID BEASLEY We made the tough call. We said let's put aside political consequences, let's do what we think is right and let the political chips fall where they may and they did.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) Today, Beasley warns that the flag issue will not be resolved any time soon and cautions ...

GOV DAVID BEASLEY You put southerners in a corner, they gonna come out fighting right or wrong and that's not the approach.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) And today, what makes the possibility of a compromise so remote is that many in South Carolina seem to feel that a boycott is a small price to pay to keep the flag flying over their capital.

SEN GLEN MCCONNELL We will teach generations to come about the honor of these people and if they are going to choose the road of trying to stereotype us as racists and as hate mongers, then we are forever divided.

MIKE VON FREMD (VO) To this day, the sons and daughters of the Confederacy mark the graves of their forefathers with bronze stars. And when the original tombstones fade, they place new ones to mark their ancestors' graves. It will be hard to convince them to give up a symbol that many of their loved ones quite literally carried to their grave. This is Mike von Fremd for Nightline in Charleston.

CHRIS WALLACE So, is it southern pride or is it racism and hate? The battle over the Confederate flag, when we come back.

(Commercial Break)

CHRIS WALLACE And we are joined now by two South Carolina state senators. From Charleston, Arthur Ravenel, Jr. and from Indianapolis, Robert Ford. And joining us from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, III, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Senator Ravenel, can you understand why some blacks are offended by the Confederate flag flying over the state capital, that they would see it in some sense as the state sponsoring a symbol of racism?

ARTHUR RAVENEL, JR., (R), SOUTH CAROLINA STATE SENATOR (Charleston, South Carolina, WGTV_TV) Well, you know, I hear what they say, sir. But to me the flag flies as a memorial to those 20,000 South Carolinians who answered their state's call when South Carolina was invaded back in 1861 and gave their lives in defense of their state. And I understand, you know, how they feel, but I would hope that they understand how a great many South Carolinians feel. And it's a southern icon and we feel very defensive about it and we're very emotional about it.

CHRIS WALLACE Mr King, what about what Senator Ravenel and a lot of other white southerners say, that this isn't, this flag isn't about racism, it's about honoring their history?

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III (Atlanta) Well, I think history should be honored and I think an appropriate place for history to be honored is in, perhaps, in a museum, not a symbol of unification. Because the flag, unfortunately, does not represent unification. Yes, there may be Confederate soldiers who certainly fought for a system that created oppression for a number of people in this nation. I also think that, interestingly enough, the flag did not begin to be flown until 1961, a direct symbol, it seems to me, to say we're going to continue to represent oppression and we don't care what anyone thinks. And my only position is that in the 21st century, when we're talking about global issues, we really don't need to remind people of vestiges of the past in such a negative way.

CHRIS WALLACE Senator Ford, you have proposed I believe it is five different bills over the years to take the flag down and you've lost every time. Given the politics of South Carolina, how effective do you think this boycott idea will be?

ROBERT FORD, (D), SOUTH CAROLINA STATE SENATOR (Indianapolis) It's just so difficult when you see two groups of people that have so much in common in South Carolina that are going to be fighting over an issue like this going up into the new millenium. And I really think that civilized people like blacks and whites living in South Carolina, I'm sure that we could come up with something that would probably show the rest of the country and the rest of the world that we, that those of us living in South Carolina, we can be civilized, we can act with some intelligence and we should respect history of both African_Americans and the whites who loved the Confederacy.

CHRIS WALLACE Well, Senator Ford, given that, do you think that a boycott would work, would force white southerners in South Carolina to take down the flag?

ROBERT FORD I've been to about 150 different activities pertaining to the Confederacy because I wanted to learn what makes Arthur Ravenel, Glen McConnell and those people in South Carolina and Georgia and Mississippi, what makes them love the Confederacy and love the Confederate flag so much? Those people in South Carolina who love the Confederacy, they are too stubborn. And what I beg from the black community and black leadership and black ministers and civil rights organizations, we need to sit down with those people that love the Confederate flag. We need to sit down as brothers and sisters and see if we can work something out because legislation will be stalled in the South Carolina general assembly because we're going to be fighting about a symbol that we could try to resolve other ways. A boycott would not solve the problem.

CHRIS WALLACE Let me bring in Senator Ravenel. You heard Senator Ford talk about some southerners in South Carolina being too stubborn. In fact, would a boycott force it? I mean ...

ARTHUR RAVENEL, JR. Oh, no, no, no, no. You know, we're kind of amused by the boycott, you know, in deference to everyone concerned because we know that the boycott's not going to be successful and the general assembly is not going to take down the flag. But there is great promise and great hope in what Senator Ford is espousing and we call it the new politics for the new millenium. And we feel that everybody's got to have a place at the table and ...

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III Could I just add a word? I might remind you that in the state of Arizona, Arizona was not going to have a Martin Luther King holiday. When dollars were exercised and spent elsewhere, all of a sudden Arizona decided we need to have a Martin Luther King holiday. This, in a sense, is maybe a similar issue and I think the timing is right. I do not believe, however, that one should take away one's history and heritage. I just think the history and heritage belongs in a museum and we need to be figuring out how we can build bridges to bring people together. Perhaps there is a compromise. I don't know what that compromise is at this point.

CHRIS WALLACE Well, Mr King and gentlemen, let me break in here just for a moment because there is an idea, Senator Ford has an idea for a compromise and let's discuss that when we return. And we'll continue our discussion in a moment.

(Commercial Break)

CHRIS WALLACE And we're back again with South Carolina State Senators Arthur Ravenel, Jr. and Robert Ford and with Martin Luther King, III. Senator Ford, after trying unsuccessfully for years to get the Confederate flag taken down, as we've mentioned, you have come up with a compromise. Briefly, tell us about it.

ROBERT FORD Chris, we've got 37 South Carolina senators, including a lot of them are Confederate, lovers of the Confederacy, who say that they are willing to fly the liberation flag, which is the Marcus Garvey red, black and green flag that came about during the 1920 movement led by Marcus Garvey and about two million African_Americans living in this country. It's the red, black and green liberation flag. By putting that flag over the statehouse and these, and 30 southern senators say that they're willing to do that, I think that would solve the problem of the, with the Confederate flag because we don't need this kind of bickering and fighting because as a senate, we will never be able to get anything done fighting this boycott and fighting to take down the Confederate flag. So I think my compromise makes a lot of sense and has a lot of merit.

CHRIS WALLACE Senator Ravenel, what about that? In other words, you keep the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse but in addition you add this black liberation flag?

ARTHUR RAVENEL, JR. Well, what Senator Ford wants to do is he wants to fly it Black History Month and other significant dates that, you know, mean a lot to our black citizens. And, of course, I'm a cosponsor of it. I'm an enthusiastic cosponsor of it and we feel for the new millenium what we have to do is we have to really get involved with tolerance. And tolerance is is you tolerate what I love that you might not particularly like and I'll do the same for you. We're getting on fine in the state senate and it's just, in my mind it's just a shame now that the NAACP is going to come along and stir the pot. It does not need to do that.

CHRIS WALLACE Mr King, and obviously as we, you represent the SCLC, not the NAACP, but is that acceptable to you, if you get the black liberation flag that you would still allow the Confederate flag with all that you say that it represents to continue flying over the state capital?

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III I certainly think that is a decision that the people of South Carolina have to make. But what I do believe is that when you segregate and segment it, I mean you're talking about a flag that does not fly like the Confederate flag, it only flies at certain times of the year, it's almost like saying well, we'll give you black folk just a little bit but we're not going to really give you too much because ...

ROBERT FORD Senator Ravenel, would you ...

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III_and I just, I think ...

ROBERT FORD Would you agree to fly it year round?

ARTHUR RAVENEL, JR. Well, Robert, you know, your thoughts are so forward looking and mean so much to racial harmony in South Carolina that I believe that I and the other senators who support you, and enthusiastically so, I believe that, you know, if the black caucus there in the, in our general assembly would want to fly it year round, I'd be happy to go along with that. You know, we added 20 additional feet to our flagpole and we put it higher on the pole. And so we've got plenty of room now for the black liberation flag.

CHRIS WALLACE We seem to be doing a little bit of legislative give and take right here on Nightline. Let me ask you, if I might, Mr King, you know, there has been some mention of the fact that not the separate flag but, in fact, that the Confederate symbol incorporated into the state flag flies over the Mississippi state legislature and also your own home state of Georgia. What about that?

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III Well, in fact I do believe that as the boycott garners steam and perhaps it needs to be known that already two other organizations have decided to honor the boycott. We are honoring what the NAACP called for. We did not call for the boycott, but we are honoring it. Secondly, I believe that South Carolina, according to what it does, will also send a message to Georgia, my state, as well as Mississippi. But again, I do believe that when you take dollars and decide to exercise using them elsewhere, when African_Americans spend about $2.5 billion in the state, when those dollars are removed and there are many whites who will join this cause, as well, I think that it becomes a different issue.

CHRIS WALLACE Mr King, what do you make of the fact that here we are on the cusp of a new millenium and we're still arguing about the Confederate flag? What does that say to you about the state of race relations?

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III It just says we have a long, long way to go. In America, whites think that we have no race problems, many. Blacks, if you do polls, you'll find out that blacks feel that there are serious racial problems. Black folk are discriminated against every day. Does that mean that white people are bad people? No. What it means is that sometimes there are, because of institutional racism there are insensitivities, that we all need to find ways to broaden our horizons. I'm discriminated against even as Martin Luther King, III every week in some way, form or fashion and it doesn't, again, it does not mean those individuals are bad people, it just means that we have to find a way to truly embrace diversity and truly begin to accept other cultures because we are a great nation and, in fact, we can become the greatest nation in the world.

CHRIS WALLACE And Senator Ravenel, let me finish with you, your thoughts, the state of race relations and the millenium when we're still arguing about the Confederate flag?

ARTHUR RAVENEL, JR. Well, as Mr King said, you know, we have so many other problems and the black community has so many problems I don't know why in the world they want to get worried about the Confederate battle flag. And how about me, Mr King? I mean, you know, I love and revere and cherish the Confederate battle flag. When you want to take it down or if you take it down, pull it down, move it or whatever, don't you discriminate against me? How about me? I mean man, I worked my heart out for black causes and for black folks. I represent a whole lot of `em. I work very closely with Senator Ford and the black senators in our senate and we're just getting on fine. So, man, don't try to, don't try to mess us up. Don't, you know, don't throw any gasoline on the fire.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III Once again, there were people who said that with Martin Luther King, Jr. we're getting along just fine. Why are you coming in our community stirring up things? Leadership says that we have to stand up for that which is right and not that, senator, we would want to do anything that violates your rights. Certainly, again, I say the appropriate place for a flag is in a museum, not flying over a state because it represents so much negativity and hurt for people and perhaps if we could find a way to switch sides, in other words, if I could find a way to become white all of a sudden or you could find a way to become black, then I think we would have a different perspective and perhaps both of us could open our minds broader.

CHRIS WALLACE Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there. That seems as good a place as any to end this discussion. We appreciate all three of you joining us tonight.

ROBERT FORD Thank you.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, III Thank you.

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