State lawmakers have an amazing knack for missing the big picture.

They spent two mind-numbing days this week arguing over what books the College of Charleston should assign its students, when it is none of their business.

During that same time, they have said almost nothing about the International African-American Museum.

Yes, there are bigger issues. But you can forget any meaningful education or health care reform. Those are way too big for timid lawmakers to tackle in an election year.

But funding Charleston's proposed African-American would be simple, and it might just help South Carolina's beleaguered image.

Mayor Joe Riley has been trying to tell them that.

The mayor has spent a lot of time in Columbia this year, lobbying for $25 million toward the proposed $75 million museum. He has argued that this is not Charleston pork, it is a statewide project that could have ramifications beyond mere economics.

He's absolutely right.

Luckily, the same state Senate that has proven so tone deaf on book banning, is actually listening.

A bigger story

Critics argue the last thing Charleston needs is another museum.

They say we have other needs. That may be, but this is a no-brainer.

About 40 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to this country landed in Charleston. It is the Ellis Island of black America. At one point, 10 percent of the slaves in the United States - 400,000 souls - lived in South Carolina.

Yes, a decisive majority of the state's population was black in 1860.

Charleston does a remarkable job with history. Its important colonial, antebellum and Civil War past is well represented here, as it should be.

But there's a piece of the puzzle missing.

As good a job as the Old Slave Mart Museum and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens - among others - do around here, there is still a much larger story to be told.

"I see this as an archaeological project - there are layers of history here," Riley says.

He speaks eloquently about the culture, the crafts and the skills that enslaved Africans brought to this country. Their advances in the rice culture alone could fill a museum.

The city and county believe in this project. Each have committed $12.5 million and Riley says he can raise $25 million privately.

State Rep. Jim Merrill says getting the line-item for the museum was the first step. The next is convincing people this isn't just a local project.

"It may be the most meritorious project ever, but anytime you have a big project, you have 45 other counties who say they have something just as important," Merrill says. "It comes down to available funds."

That's an astute, and accurate, assessment of the facts of life in Columbia.

But Riley can be pretty convincing when he wants to be.

State history

South Carolina has had more than its share of trouble with racial politics lately.

The state has gotten a bad rap, some of it deserved - and some of it not.

Fairly or not, South Carolina has a poor national reputation, due in part to that lingering NAACP boycott.

That, of course, is not a reason to fund the museum. The state should do it because this is an important part of our history and the story deserves to be told. And South Carolina should tell it.

Rehabilitating the state's image, and proving we aren't the Neanderthals some people claim we are, is just a fringe benefit.

There is some sign the state Senate sees this. The House put only $250,000 for the museum in its version of the budget. The Senate raised that to $1 million and has put another $6 million toward the project in its supplemental budget.

That's the wish list budget that gets funded if state revenue exceeds expectations. And this year many people believe it will.

Charleston has other needs competing with the museum - the Aeronautical Training Center at Trident Tech for one. Lowcountry lawmakers say that's a time-sensitive project and is their No. 1 priority.

And that's fine. But they need to convince the rest of the Legislature that the International African-American Museum is not a Lowcountry project - it's a statewide one. If it takes several years to fund it, that's fine. But ultimately they should just do it.

South Carolina claims that it honors all of its history. It's time to prove it.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.